When it comes to holiday meals, I am all about the side dishes. I would happily forgo the turkey, ham, or centerpiece protein altogether in favor of a panoply of starchy, gooey goodness to pile on my plate.
And I'm no side dish snob. At Thanksgiving, I crave unpretentious dishes like green bean casseroles, corn puddings, and mashed potatoes choking beneath a pool of butter and gravy.
There is, however, one notable exception to my love of traditional Thanksgiving sides. To me, it is an unholy marriage of ingredients that should never sit alongside self-respecting savory dishes. It is a sticky dessert (barely) masquerading as a side.
I'm talking about the sweet potato and marshmallow casserole.
Why, I wonder, would anyone have ever wanted to take an already-sweet vegetable, the sweet potato (or worse, canned candied yams) and melt what amounts to whipped sugar on top? What twisted chef came up with this?
As it turns out, the American palate seems to have been primed for such a combination right from the beginning.
Marshmallows on Sweet Potatoes: A Timeline
The first American cookbook, 1796's American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, includes a recipe for "potatoe [sic] pudding." It calls for "one pound boiled potatoes, mashed, 4 oz butter, 1 quart milk, the juice of one lemon and the peal [sic] grated, half a pound sugar, half nutmeg, 7 eggs, two spoons rose-water, bake 1 and a half hour."
Two versions of this proto-casserole appear in the 1840 cookbook, Directions for Cookery, a potato and a "yam pudding." The yam version follows the 1796 original closely, with two notable additions: cinnamon and lightly whipped egg whites.
And the line between dessert and side dish continued to blur, thanks to an 1887 issue of the Philadelphia-based Godey's Lady's Book, which published a "receipt" for a sweet potato pie that was to be served either as dessert or as a side dish with the main course; a bit later, in 1896, the first edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook featured a recipe for glazed or candied sweet potatoes.
Okay, so clearly the whole candying, glazing, or adding sugar to sweet potatoes thing is a longstanding, respected tradition at the American table. But what about the turning point, the addition of marshmallows to the sweet potato pudding paradigm?
We have — what else? — a marshmallow company to thank.
In 1917, the story goes, the Angelus Marshmallow company hired the Boston Cooking School Magazine's founder, Janet MacKenzie Hill, to develop recipes for a booklet designed to get the home cooks of America to start regularly incorporating marshmallows into their cooking. According to the Library of Congress, this booklet "contained the first documented appearance of sweet potatoes baked with a marshmallow topping."
Around the same time (1918), the Barrett Company put out an agricultural pamphlet extolling the virtues of the sweet potato, which included a recipe for candied yams. The instructions suggest tossing a few marshmallows on top of the dish before removing it from the oven. (That pamphlet, disturbing in its casual racism, also provides a recipe for sweet potato custard and mentions a dish called "'possum an' taters," but does not provide a recipe, contending that only "mammy" knows the "secrets of the dish when made as it should be made.")
And the marshmallow recipe brochures and pamphlets just kept on coming. In 1930, the Angelus company, now Angelus-Campfire, put out a booklet called "How Famous Chefs Use Campfire Marshmallows" with dozens of gooey recipes, including no fewer than six involving sweet potatoes.
An undated Campfire Marshmallow recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack Company, called "My Favorite Marshmallow Recipes" by Marcia Camp — author of the 1950 book 55 Dainty Marshmallow Recipes — contains a "Peanut Crunch Sweet Potato Casserole" featuring a "generous" topping of "Angelus, Campfire, or Recipe Marshmallows."
While I realize this dish is a sentimental favorite for many people, it does seem to be the most divisive of the Thanksgiving sides, a real "love-it-or-hate-it" kind of thing. And now that I know that the marshmallow component is essentially an advertising ploy and not a venerated American tradition, I certainly don't feel guilty disliking this ubiquitous Thanksgiving dish.
I wholeheartedly concur with Savannah Cook Book author Harriet Ross Colquitt, who wrote in her 1933 classic that while "Most of the receipts direct you to …embellish with marsh-mallows," her marshmallow-free candied sweet potatoes were "far, far nicer."
Do you have strong opinions on marshmallows on your sweet potatoes?