A soft spot for sweet potatoes and marshmallows

It just wouldn't be the usual holiday dinner without the familiar casserole on the table

November 22, 2006|By Renee Enna | Renee Enna,Chicago Tribune

As you know, Sweet-Potato-Casserole-With-Marshmallows Day will be here tomorrow. It's also known as Thanksgiving.

Many holiday tables - OK, most holiday tables - across the nation will be resplendent with a juicy turkey, cranberry relish, mashed potatoes and the side dish that could double as dessert any of the other 364 days of the year.

To which many of you respond: So what's your point?

The point is, there is a case to be made for sweet potatoes without marshmallows. Some of us think they're already sweet enough. As in, sweet potatoes.

But that marshmallow topping has somehow become a permanent holiday fixture, even though the dish is served before - way before - a pumpkin pie ever shows up.

"It's not dessert - it's a vegetable. You've got to be very clear on that," said Sylvia Lovegren, author of Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. (She was laughing when she said that.)

Lovegren also said she doesn't like them so sweet. Curiously, many people we talked to felt the same way.

"It's funny how everyone seems to have it on their Thanksgiving table," said executive chef Heather Terhune of Atwood Cafe and South Water Kitchen in Chicago. "Even if they don't eat it."

Even Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission - her state is the leading grower of sweet potatoes in the U.S. with 40 percent of the supply - admitted, a bit reluctantly, that she wasn't too keen on the super-sweet casserole, either.

"My tastes have gone more toward the savory than the sweet," Johnson-Langdon said. "I really prefer them with a little cayenne, a little fruit juice in them or with rosemary and garlic."

There are, of course, fierce defenders of marshmallow-topped sweet-potato casserole. The group includes every member of my family and most of my friends. Not to mention every member of your family and most of your friends. And, quite possibly, you.

Whether you love it, loathe it or just prefer it for dessert, you can thank Ida C. Bailey Allen for marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole, said food historian and cookbook author Jean Anderson.

While researching The American Century Cookbook, Anderson scoured all the early 20th-century cookbooks she could find for that recipe. The earliest appeared in Allen's 1928 cookbook, Vital Vegetables.

Allen, a leading culinary figure from the 1920s through the early '50s, wrote a syndicated newspaper column, more than 30 cookbooks and - this is key, Anderson said - was a spokeswoman for many major food companies.

"I feel certain, although cannot prove, that Allen got the marshmallow-topping idea from a food company ad - probably Campfire Marshmallows - that appeared in one or more of the popular women's magazines of the day," she added.

But why did this dish, as opposed to the thousands of others foisted upon an unsuspecting public by food companies, become a staple of the country's most celebrated food day?

Anderson has her theories. "Marshmallows melting on top of sweet potatoes and bubbling ... I just think it was gimmicky enough," she said. "The other thing about this sweet-potato casserole is that it lends itself to improv. Some people put pineapples in it, some people put mashed bananas in it. I don't think you can ruin it."

You also can't discount the power of nostalgia. That is why chefs who might not serve marshmallow-topped casseroles on their upscale restaurant menus still know to offer a reasonable facsimile.

Sarah Stegner, co-chef and co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, Ill., serves her family a sweet-potato puree sweetened with orange juice and topped with mascarpone. It's more savory than sweet, but the idea is there.

"It has those memories - there's not that much food that does that," Stegner said. "The components that your mom served or your grandmother served at Thanksgiving are definitely etched in people's brains."

As for chefs like Terhune, who makes a holiday dinner at home every year for friends, marshmallows are on the shopping list. Like it or not.

"If there's something people want at Thanksgiving, that's it," Terhune said, cheerful in the face of defeat. "I always make it. Even if I wouldn't want it."

Lovegren, on the other hand, has courageously attempted to conquer that casserole.

And that casserole always wins.

"Every year I try to do something different - with onions, with cinnamon, with Middle Eastern flavorings," she said. "It never works. Nobody ever likes them."

Well, look on the bright side. Lovegren's Fashionable Food documented a different sweet-potato recipe that was a big hit in the 1930s: Sweet-Potato-Marshmallow Surprises had a pastry made of mashed sweet potatoes and butter encasing jumbo marshmallows. Each "surprise" was then rolled in crushed cereal and baked. (See Recipe Finder, 2F.)

Suddenly, marshmallow-topped-sweet-potato casserole doesn't sound like such a bad alternative.

Renee Enna writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Browned Sweet Potatoes With Marshmallows

Serves 6

3 cups mashed sweet potato

2 tablespoons butter, plus a few dots for topping

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 egg, well beaten

12 marshmallows

Butter a baking dish. Beat together potato, butter, salt, sugar and egg and pile in a dish, making the top rather rough; cover with the marshmallows and "dots" of butter and cook in a moderate oven -- 350 degrees -- till browned.

Note: This recipe, from Ida C. Bailey Allen, comes from Jean Anderson's The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century.

Anderson's exhaustive research led her to Bailey's 1928 cookbook, Vital Vegetables, and she believes this represents the first published appearance of marshmallow-topped-sweet-potato casserole. It is not nearly as sweet as some of the more current recipes.

Per serving: 224 calories, 5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 43 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams protein, 385 milligrams sodium, 4 grams fiber

Recipe analysis provided by the Chicago Tribune.

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