Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Thanksgiving Food: Sweet Potato.

I love sweet potatoes. Although I have no objection to gilding the occasional lily, I do not, however, love the idea of mixing them with marshmallows. I have heard rumour that this is what happens in some households at Thanksgiving. I will try to reserve final judgement until I actually face this dish across a Thanksgiving table one day.

How did this idea of sweetening the sweet potato come about? And when? I have come across a 1913 reference to topping pumpkin pie with marshmallows and briefly returning it to the oven – a not particularly shocking idea. The first mention of sweet potatoes with marshmallows (in a side dish) that I have found so far is from 1917, in the Lowell Sun. Here it is:

Scalloped Sweet Potatoes.
Slice boiled sweet potatoes and place in buttered baking dish with layers of brown sugar dotted with butter between layers of potatoes. Cover the top with 2 tablespoonfuls of cream, dots of butter, and bake until brown. A few minutes before serving cover the top with a layer of marshmallows and return to the oven to brown.

Was the precedent for the sweetening-the-sweet potato idea this ‘candy’, mentioned in The Cedar Rapid Times, of February, 1889?

"The candied sweet potato is a Philadelphia confectionery. It is nothing but sweet potatoes carefully boiled and quartered, then candied in boiling syrup, but it is said to be dainty and tender and of a delicious flavor".

Here, to assist you to digest the idea, I give you a random selection of recipes for sweetening the sweet potatoes at your Thanksgiving dinner.

From the New York Times of November 24, 1895:

Glazed Sweet Potato.
Boil the potatoes for fifty or sixty minutes, then peel and cut in two lengthwise; season them with salt, spread a little butter over them, dust lightly with sugar, and bake in a hot oven fifteen or twenty minutes.

From the New Oxford Item (New Oxford, Pennyslvania) of October 22, 1908, an elegant version with maple syrup (maple syrup: a difficult addiction for me to maintain, at this distance of half the world’s girth, but I try.)

Candied Sweet Potato Balls.
With a French cutter, scoop balls from raw sweet potatoes; the potatoes should first be neatly pared. For a pint of balls melt one-fourth a cup of butter in a casserole, add one fourth a cup of maple syrup or sugar, and when very hot put in the balls and shake them over the fire until quite hot, then cover and let cook in the oven till tender. Baste frequently with the liquid in the dish; add salt before the cooking is complete.

The bacon drippings notwithstanding, the following recipe is intended to be a dessert, is it not? From the Cumberland Evening Times, September 26, 1919:

Marshmallow Sweets.
1 pint of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, 1 tablespoonful sugar, ½ cupful chopped nuts, 1 tablespoonful bacon drippings, ½ [?] teaspoonful ground cinnamon,1 dozen fresh marshmallows.
Beat the mashed sweet potatoes and fat until very light, adding the spice and sugar slowly. Put one layer of the potatoes into a buttered baking dish. Beat the nuts into the remaining potato, and top with marshmallows, and cover the baking dish.Bake for ten minutes. Remove cover and brown. Serve very hot.

The following two recipes, are, to me, extreme variations on the theme.

From a 1940’s advertisement for Parkay Margarine

Candied Sweet Potato Casserole.
1 20 oz can pineapple chunks
3 17 oz cans whole sweet potatoes, drained
¾ cup packed brown sugar
½ cup PARKAY margarine
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves

Drain pineapple, reserving ¼ cup liquid. Cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Combine potatoes and pineapple. Spoon into 12 x 8-inch baking dish. Combine reserved liquid, sugar, margarine and spices in saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat, simmer 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Pour over potato mixture. Bake at 350 deg. 25 minutes.
10-12 servings.

From Ebony magazine, December 1971.

Baked Sweet Potatoes & Bananas.
Boil 6 medium sweet potatoes, peel, slice in ¾ in. thick slices. Slice 3 banans, crumb 15 to 20 gingersnaps. Butter casserole, fill with alternate layers potatoes, bananas, gingersnap crumbs. Heat ½ c. butter, add ½ tsp. slat, 2 tbls. lemon juice, 1 c. boiling water. Pour over casserole. Bake covered 20 min. in 400 deg. oven. Uncover, brown about 15 mins.

Quotation for the Day.

Heap high the board with plenteous cheer and gather to the feast,
And toast the sturdy Pilgrim band whose courage never ceased.
Alice W. Brotherton


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

While I know marshmallows and sweet potatoes are looked upon with some skepticism, and the dish surely was not at the Pilgrims' table, thee combination is an American classic. There's something sublime about how the tooth-achingly sweet dish contrasts a savory turkey. And - done just right - that bubbly golden-brown mosaic of marshmallows can be a culinary work of art. When you come to America, I will make it for you, and you can decide for yourself.

Judy said...

Most folks here in Kansas go the marshmallow route. (shudder) I think they are nasty that way. It is probably because I like my sweet potatoes baked in the skin with a sprinkle of salt, pat of butter and then, if it needs it, a pinch of sugar.

The Old Foodie said...

Judy - as I said, the theory doesnt appeal, but I gotta try it someday, to see for myself.
T.W - I am going to take you up on that invitation one day, no doubt about it!

Rachel Laudan said...

Janet, candied sweet potatoes are an old and honored street food (and home food) in Mexico, eaten as a sweet by themselves or with milk. Excellent.

The Old Foodie said...

This whole post has gotten me thinking about how our food prejudices develop,Rachel (a theme you covered far more elegantly yourself recently) I love sweet potatoes, and I love the idea of sweet potato candied - it is the marshmallow thing that I find (dare I say it? almost repellant). I am absolutely, definitely going to try it one day! :)
Dont you love the internet?

Gary Allen said...

As someone who has been exposed to more than my share of sweet potatoes avec marshmallow, I have often been puzzled by the need (by some people) to pile sweet on sweet -- and on sweet, as some also use brown sugar as well. I'm with Another Judy in preferring the simpler baked SP.

I have written a fairly long (OK, obscenely long) exploration of the psychodynamics of this excessive amelioration. I hope that it may provide some comfort to those who may soon be facing one of these orange nightmares. It's at:

Twistie said...

It is my considered opinion that there is nothing on any table improved by the addition of marshmallows. YMMV.

I prefer my sweet potatoes and yams seasoned with more savory things. They're already sweet, so adding more sweet just makes the experience cloying to me. but a luscious, sweet yam with butter, salt, and a pinch each of thyme and black pepper? Pure heaven in my mouth. It's complex and soothing at the same time.

The Old Foodie said...

Gary, Twistie (and everyone else) - it seems that this sweet potato - marshmallow thing really polarises people, doesnt it? Still cant get my head around it, - my head definitely prefers the other suggestions - but I am determined to give it the benefit of the doubt until I try it (gonna take you up on your offer one day, t.w!)

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

I just have to post a comment here! First time visiting your blog, and my stomach is grumbling with the mere idea of some of the recipes I've viewed. (having had the flu for several days, I'm still on the chicken soup/crackers/tea diet... I need FOOD!) *smile*

My family has always gone with the candied sweet potatoes as posted with the syrup and the marshmallows. (LOTS of marshmallows, per my middle daughter...) But another newer favorite of mine is a dish my mother came up with a few years ago. Parboil several sweet potatoes until JUST tender, then peel and slice them in 1/2 inch thick slices. Dredge each slice in granulated sugar and fry in butter until slightly glazed. Wonderful treat!

Just another SP idea from a crazy American with a sweet tooth!

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

PS gotta change my address in here, but the ezeeweb.com address has been closed. You can reach me at deborahsmith56@hotmail.com. Sorry!