You know… I’m still giggling over this. It’s just a matter of time when they will have a day, week or month given over to celebrating every something or other known to mankind. And then… as a natural extension, some wayward locale will hold a festival honoring the something or other like… like? The Garlic Festival in Gilroy, CA! Or the Marshmallow Festival in Ligonier, IN! And maybe there will even be an associated Hall of Fame! I just shake my head, can you imagine: The C.P.A. Hall of Fame and Gift Shop (I hope I can find a parking space… OK kids, I want everyone go to the bathroom now, then remember, we’re going thru the exhibits first, don’t touch anything, no shouting or pushing, then if you behave, we can go to the gift shop).
What would intelligent life from another planet think about this? Do you see why I’m giggling? Oh, no… not about the C.P.A Hall of Fame… I just made that up. But about the Marshmallow Festival in Ligonier, Indiana which I am not making up!
Sure… if you have nothing planned on Labor Day Weekend, why not head over to Ligonier and take in the festivities honoring the greatness of the marshmallow. Be forewarned, however, there is a prohibition against pets, roller blades, roller skates and skateboards in the festival areas! Significantly, there is no prohibition against 79 year old women wielding 8 litre galvanized Haws watering cans. A detail that caught Etienne Lartigue off guard.
Let’s consider the central item of worship in Ligonier: the marshmallow. It’s origin is not clear. But they have been around since the mid 19th Century with commercial brands being made in the 1890s. For the record… stems of the marsh mallow plant were peeled to their soft spongy pith. The pith was then boiled in a sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft chewy confection that was then cut into sections, rolled in a combination of corn starch and confectioners sugar… voila: the marshmallow we know and love.
From its humble beginnings it moved on to mass production (gelatin replacing the plant) and its use in mallomars, Rice Krispie treats, s’mores, Marshmallow Fluff, and of course as that cookout and campfire staple — the toasted marshmallow. Of the latter, there are two schools of preparation: the softly-toasted-to-a-light-golden-brown and the flame-and-burned-to-a-charred-crisp.
The joy of the marshmallow is not confined to the campgrounds and backyards of America. It was already well established in County Shropshire, England by 1929 when Penelope Whistle-Smythe came into this world. It would be seven years before Penelope would have what she described as “a defining moment in my life.”
On a warm July day in 1936, Penelope’s extended family went on an outing to the River Severn, not far from her Oswestry home. The children of the family went off from their parents to enjoy independent fun and games. Penelope, the youngest of the children, was given over to her teenaged cousin Richard, eldest of the children, and by all accounts, the ringleader of the troop. It was he who came up with the idea of making a campfire in the protected glen close to the river. It was he who produced a handsome bag of fresh marshmallows. And it was he who sent all his younger charges out looking for appropriate sticks for use in roasting the marshmallows. The kids, including Penelope, set out to the River with its stand of white birch trees, that area being deemed as an ideal location for sticks and twigs.
Why it took Penelope longer to find a stick, we can’t really say. Maybe she kept rejecting candidates because they were not of acceptable length, or maybe one that was long enough didn’t have a proper bend? Regardless, when she finally selected one she returned to the glen to find her cousins already deeply involved in scarfing down the sticky toasted marshmallows.
What transpired next would cast an imprint in the mind of young Penelope… it would remain with her for the rest of her life. She began to complain bitterly to her cousins that they should have waited for her to return. She cried that there wouldn’t be any marshmallows left for her! She called them rude, selfish and ill-behaved. The cousins did not take well to being dressed down by the youngest and smallest of their number! If they wanted to be lectured about behavior they would have remained with their parents!
Richard would have none of it. He took things into hand. He looked at his cooking stick, racked with four marshmallows burned to a crisp. Determined that they were sufficiently cooled, he slipped the blackened marshmallows from the stick, examined them for their consistency… satisfied, he took the mélange and rubbed them into Penelope’s hair.
On cue, the other cousins removed their cooked marshmallows… golden browns and burnt crisps… and mashed their gooey contents into the crying Penelope’s hair, face and arms. It’s a cruel world. Kids know how to take unfair advantage of a situation.
Eight years later, Richard, Penelope’s protector, would make the supreme sacrifice during the Battle of the Falaise Pocket. If Penelope had remorse for the loss of her cousin, she never showed it. Who can blame her? Although years later while addressing the Annual Meeting of the Shrewsbury Chapter of the Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Confections, she stated, “I owe my commitment and love, to this noble cause to my dearly departed cousin, Richard.”
Yes, Penelope Whistle-Smythe had found her calling. If she caught wind that there was to be a taffy pull on the Isle of Wight she’d be there! Placards and umbrella in hand… and she wouldn’t think twice about whacking a contestant on the noggin, and finishing it off with a “that will teach you… you perfect beast!”
And with the arrival of the internet and its “information highway”, Penelope was no longer bound to local news and events. She could go global. And she did.
While the “defining moment” in Penelope’s life is clear, the defining moment for Etienne Lartigue is less so. I suppose you could say that it was May 2, 1980 — the day of his birth. The day when the results of the unique joining of genetic matter of Claudine and Henri Lartigue produced a healthy baby boy who was destined to reach the mere height of 5’… although that might not have been evident on that Friday in 1980.
There are far worse things in life than being painfully short. But tell that to a boy who was the shortest person, boy or girl, at every grade level in school. Tell that to a boy who had no athletic skills. No chance for him to be a demon of speed on the soccer pitch. Nor was he academically gifted. When Etienne came of age he narrowed the paths for self esteem to just two: become a high stakes jockey or join a circus.
He hated horses.
One day, with little ceremony, he left his childhood home in Cherbourg and headed to the touring Cirque Medrano. His first assignment was helping with the care of Camela… one of the famous Medrano Elephants. This didn’t last long… Etienne liked elephants even less than horses. And further, the owners feared that one of the elephants would eventually crush him.
The owners tried putting him into some of the other acts. But he was too tall to be a clown midget, he couldn’t juggle worth a damn… but he began to have success with some of the aerial acts, and some of the stunt motorcycle routines… then a motor cycle on the high wire number. And finally a stint as the human cannonball.
The crowds loved him! Etienne Le Courageux!!
Etienne had found his calling. It was the going for the thrill. It was doing something, anything, that surpassed his diminutive height. And he set his course to the pursuit of enterprises that would demonstrate his ability to overcome physical or emotional challenges. And it wasn’t long before he left Cirque Medrano, its elephants and adoring crowds for the uncharted territory of the bizarre.
He would scale the imposing facade of the ADIA Tower in Abu Dhabi, bungee jump from a hovering helicopter over the Victoria Falls and shinny up the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Etienne Le Courageux! The film crews followed him everywhere. Oh, look! There is Etienne swimming off the Barrier Reef… I hope a Great White doesn’t get him!
It is unclear whether the organizers of the Marshmallow Festival spawned the idea, or whether it was something that Etienne cooked up… but the Labor Day weekend of 2008 found the dare devil putting the final touches to his planned jump to take place on Sunday.
Lartigue had selected the First Bank Building on West Jefferson Blvd as the best location for his planned jump. He had constructed a platform block of marshmallows 10′ X 15′ to a depth of 8′ on the sidewalk next to the bank building… the idea being that the marshmallows would adequately cushion his fall from the four story precipice. Or so the organizers and Etienne had hoped.
Etienne had actually looked for a taller building. But this was Ligonier.
Lacking a building of greater height, Etienne decided to add interest to the fall by holding on to an anvil to speed his descent. As far as the anvil was concerned, it wasn’t a matter of strength… Etienne was as strong as an ox, albeit a small one. Still, one could question whether is was necessary to take on the added risk.
At the appointed hour of 3:00PM on Sunday, before a crowd of five hundred or so interested citizens (and a film crew), Etienne took his leap into the awaiting bed of marshmallows. Later he admitted that he should have let go of the anvil in midflight. As it developed, clutching on to the heavy weight caused some collateral damage to his private parts when he crashed into the marshmallow block. And when he emerged from the marshmallow encasement, in pain, gasping for air, chunks of marshmallow clinging to his face he was met by Penelope Whistle-Smythe.
Penelope was being escorted from the festival grounds. She was asked to leave after she barged her way thru to the Cub Scout Pavilion… the scouts were busy toasting marshmallows over an open campfire for the benefit of the hungry throng. Penelope, armed with her favorite Haws watering can, had taken it upon herself to put an end to this dastardly rite (as she referred to it), and she calmly, but firmly, doused the flame to its death. Satisfied that she had taken care of the fire, she glared at the boys, “Be off with you… you nasty beasts!“
Civil disobedient, maybe. But Penelope was not one to give undue problems to the authorities. She felt that she had made her point, “marshmallows will be forever identified as the Joan of Arc of confections!”. Time to leave. But when she caught sight of the spectacle that was attending to the dare devil’s plunge into a bed of marshmallows, she had to pause.
Aghast at the hoopla and fanfare, she could not contain her displeasure and anger. And when Etienne staggered from the marshmallow heap, obviously in distress, clutching at his pride and joy, Penelope thought not twice as she approached him and purposefully slammed her Haws watering can into the side of his head, knocking the Frenchman unconscious to the ground. She looked defiantly at the fallen Lartigue, “Serves him right!”
Etienne recovered… eventually. Penelope Whistle-Smythe was sent to the hoosegow for an overnight. “I go willingly to your gaol… a small inconvenience for publicizing the brutality of this ungodly Festival!”
(September 1) The peaceful activities of the Marshmallow Festival in Ligonier were disrupted on Sunday when an elderly woman from Shropshire, England beat the renowned French Dare Devil Etienne Lartigue on the head with a galvanized watering can. Mr. Lartigue is not pressing charges. Ms. Whistle-Smythe, as she was taken from the festival grounds, was heard to claim, “that man was a perfect beast.” After spending a day in jail on the charges of disorderly conduct, Ms. Whistle-Smythe was released on her own recognizance and her pledge to appear before the County Judge on September 17. — The Elkhart Truth
OK… call me cruel. I’m still giggling over all this. I had penciled in the Marshmallow Festival for this Labor Day Weekend… sounds too good to miss. But alas, my nephew is getting married over the weekend. Maybe I’ll bring some marshmallows…