Spoofs & Satire

I Dream in Malcolm Gladwell

A new sport is taking hold, one that involves marshmallows, sticks, and fire.

In Central Midwesterntown, Bob Jennings runs a convenience store that sells items arranged on shelves that cost various amounts of dollars, depending. There are also magazines. And Red Bull. Thirty-six years old with a haggard goatee, two children, and a wife, Sally, whom he married three months after the senior prom, Jennings is also the nation’s reigning champion of marshmallow melting.

It’s a sport, increasingly popular though not yet widespread, that he helped invent back in the early 1990s when the Cold War had just thawed and Americans were still sloughing off the idea that weekends were made for Michelob. Scientists, and Cub Scouts, have known for years that marshmallows melt through an unusual process. Jennings came upon the same phenomenon in late 1992. When placed near a flame or other heating source, the marshmallow, white and firm at the start, will start to wilt from its stick. The longer the ’mallow, as Jennings calls it and as the newly formed North American League of ’Mallow Melting (NALMM) has codified it, is near the source of heat, the less chance it stands to remain firm. It’s what researchers have come to call the “heat” problem in marshmallows. Jennings and his sport may not yet be on the radar of ESPN, but they could be providing clues to how we think about pediatrics.

On a recent Wednesday at Sloan-Kettering in New York, Drs. W— and S— sipped green tea in the third-floor café. The architecture of Sloan-Kettering, famously designed by an architect who was paid to do so, allows for such contemplative moments. But Drs. W— and S— weren’t kibitzing over their usual weekend plans at the Vineyard. The two are New York’s leading pediatric researchers on the problem of baby feeding. In an age when children are born nearly every day in America, and most of them to parents who have had intercourse sometime during the year prior, physicians have become troubled that once the children are born, they seem to lack the ability to feed themselves. The two researchers have been working for years on a study that may provide insight to the problem. Infants, their studies are showing, aren’t very smart. Like melting marshmallows, it appears that breastfeeding is an unusual process difficult to understand. In this case, W— and S— believe, that process may involve both breasts and milk.

Bob Jennings had just left his store on a softly shaded September Saturday when he got a call on his Verizon go-anywhere plan about an impromptu melting competition down at the old mill. Since I was angling to intertwine two seemingly unrelated stories, I took the chance to watch Jennings that day and talk with Frank Appelston, another accomplished melter and Jennings’s closest friend on the NALMM tour. Appelston pointed out what newcomers to the sport don’t easily see, that as Jennings picked a stick from the nearby woods, first a birch twig but then an oak, he did more than find an implement on which to impale the marshmallow. He’d also done what many infants can’t do—he connected means with ends. Then, when Jennings waved for the referee to hand over his first ’mallow, Appelston walked me through the process by which the firm little cylinder of sugar was, to use the technical phrasing in the NALMM rule book, poked with the stick.

Jennings had demonstrated once again that to melt a marshmallow, one has to heat it up. It’s that “heat” problem again. “Bob got into this as part of some innate drive he has to poke things with sticks,” Appelston recalled. “Not all of us are born with that instinct.” Jennings’s concentration was obvious, with an almost golfer-like need for silence amidst the rustling leaves above. And he had on a plaid shirt. I should’ve said that earlier, he’s a real working-class guy, but you got that, right?

A bonfire was in full flame down by Old Man Peterson’s shack, famous locally for being occupied by a gentleman whose name was Peterson and who, later in life, had become old. As Frank and I stood by, Jennings’s marshmallow had within moments almost imperceptibly begun to melt. The awe-filled bystanders shook their heads, astonished at Jennings’s speed, the angle at which he held the stick, the deftness with which he’d scooted his left steel-toed boot back to avoid the dripping goop of the once-congealed sugar. “He’s a pro,” Appelston said in the unassuming way I’d come to find defined the best of the melters. Jennings had demonstrated once again that to melt a marshmallow, one has to heat it up. It’s that “heat” problem again. It’s also what pediatric researchers now refer to as the ’Mallow Adducement.

Back in the really cosmopolitan New York, Drs. W— and S— have been working on the ’Mallow Adducement. They had, one might say, found that the value of breast milk to infants was similar to the value of heat to a ’mallow melter: Both needed each other, this was the key. At a symposium last year at the Hyatt in Austin, Texas, the two researchers held court in a room filled to capacity with medical professionals, parents, and wayward hotel guests looking for the lunch buffet. Signaling that food remains one of the salient ways infants get nourishment, the symposium was a kind of coming out party for W— and S—’s work. Through years of research watching infants drink breast milk and after rewatching those Look Who’s Talking films, they had discovered what many that day agreed was remarkable.

“Their results are nothing less than revolutionary,” said Dr. Wilson Wilson, a physician I spoke to in the stairwell later that day. “In the 1960s, Worseberg and Flannery found that babies were at their absolute youngest age upon birth, and that shook the field for decades. But this, this is something extraordinary.” Licking chipotle sauce from his fingers, Wilson continued: “Babies feed on breast milk. This explains why they are always suckling from their mothers.”

Back in Central Midwesterntown, Bob Jennings and Frank Appelston watched in repose from the edge of the woods by Old Man Peterson’s shack as a local teenager brought twig after twig to the still-burning fire, practicing a new craft, mimicking Jennings’s technique, and melting ’mallow after ’mallow. The two men knew the popularity of the sport would ultimately bring new challengers to Jennings’s crown. But that was OK. If insights from those meltings carry beyond this sleepy town, they might spark further research on roads yet untraveled. Cross-armed, the two men watched a not-yet-ready-for-the-pros teenager curse under his breath and lick sticky melted sugar from his fingers. Children need to learn. Like W— and S—, the blue-collar men now believe that they may be our future.

Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at Lafayette College and lives in Easton, Pa., with his family. He is the author of Notes From the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (2009) and Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (2019). More by Benjamin R. Cohen