field notes

How Our Cranky Restaurant Critic Finally Learned to Love S’mores

A grill-toasted s’more, Adam Platt’s new go-to method. Photo: Melissa Hom

Even with all the horrible things happening in the world, weary gastronomes can’t help but make little mental lists of the dishes and ingredients they find overrated, or secretly despicable. Near the top of my own personal mental list — going back to my sad days as a pudgy fifth grader off at sleepaway camp — has always been that beloved, endlessly romanticized, ever-disappointing summer-camp fire favorite: the dreaded s’more.

How many ways do I hate the humble s’more? Let’s start with the three ingredients, each one dating back to roughly the same blackhole period of early 20th-century American culinary history, and each one grimly tasteless in its own distinct, hyper-processed way.

There’s the graham cracker, a pressed, chalky amalgam of grains and sugars, which somehow manages to neuter the flavor of anything you desperately slather on it (honey, jam, Nutella), and which I’ve actively avoided ever since I first encountered them stacked in waxy packets, with cartons of tepid milk, during my earliest recess times. There’s the so-called “chocolate” bar, often from Hershey, another mass-produced horror that tastes more like cacao-flavored candle wax than proper chocolate. And finally, the all-important marshmallow, which has its airy charms, but is usually rendered, in s’mores form, into a blackened, over-charred, likely carcinogenic bomb of molten goo.

With Labor Day upon us, it is prime s’more season and there are undeniably some good qualities about this annual, endlessly repeated campfire zombie ritual, especially in the age of COVID: the modest cost, the spectacle of fresh air and roaring outdoor flames, the joys of using a DIY event to mesmerize whole crowds of unruly children all at once. But even in a plague year, these pleasures are outweighed by the botched technique (sticky, possibly singed fingers; over-burnt marshmallows), the lack of coherent texture (the chocolate never really melts), and the taste, which another s’mores-hater I know once described as “burnt marshmallows rolled in sawdust.”

But a couple of weeks back, swatting mosquitoes at the tail end of an otherwise-pleasant barbecue, grimly awaiting my ration of burnt, sandy marshmallows and flavorless, unmelted chocolate, I encountered something that didn’t taste at all like the old summertime staple I’ve taken pleasure in loathing for so long. The squares of graham cracker were crisp and toasty. The chocolate and marshmallow inside had melted together in a pleasing, almost elegant way, and — to my astonishment — the tired recipe tasted much more sophisticated than the sum of its processed, prepackaged parts.

“What the hell is this?!” I cried to no one in particular, in my best crazy old uncle voice, and presently the chef appeared from the gloom to describe her life-changing s’mores technique.

Like any proper chef, she constructed each little sandwich beforehand, but she made them on the grill, over coals, instead of the usual unruly campfire, she explained. The real key was a sheet of tinfoil, which she spread over the grill and used as an ad hoc griddle to bake and flip each s’more like a miniature grilled-cheese sandwich, until the chocolate and marshmallow had fused together inside their crisp cracker crust.

How long has this revolutionary technique existed in s’mores circles? Who knows? Will kids get upset — the way my marshmallow-loving daughters sort of were — if they’re robbed of their crooked branches and other assorted s’mores paraphernalia?

Honestly, who the hell cares?! I stood over the grill for a time, pondering this little miracle before doing something I’d never believed possible. I asked, in my best hushed Oliver Twist voice, if I could please have another bite of s’mores.

Our Cranky Restaurant Critic Finally Learns to Love S’mores