In Alabama’s eponymous Southern anthem, “Song of the South,” the lyricist heralds the sweet potato as the iconic vegetable of the region, singing, “Song, song of the South, sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth;” following this acclamatory pronouncement, we can only assume he was wrapping his lips tightly around a fresh spoonful of the delicious, fresh-baked root. When it comes time to dress the Southern Thanksgiving table, the pie version of this sweet veggie so distinctly lauded in the song certainly belongs on the menu, but it is sweet potato casserole, a cousin of the pie, that truly steals the show. The gooey, nectarous dish has long held the hearts of Southerners, topped with marshmallows, browned sugar, and pecans. The development of the dish into a Southern Thanksgiving staple is a story as long and winding as the vines of the plant itself.
Sweet potatoes, which are native to Central and South America, actually met the United States via colonists from Europe. The hardy root quickly acclimated itself to the verdant soils of the New World. Settlers would bake, boil and broil sweet potatoes, and even, most importantly, slip them into casseroles. The first American cookbook, published in 1796, includes a recipe for “potatoe pudding,” which historians claim was actually an early recipe for sweet potato pudding, or casserole. By the time of publication of Mary Randolph’s famous The Virginia Housewife in 1839, the sweet potato, and its casserole form, had become a fundamental part of the American diet.
The sweet potato did not receive its specifically Southern connotations until slightly later in history. George Washington Carver, though most well known for his commendations of the peanut, also highly encouraged the adoption of sweet potatoes as a Southern crop. While researching the vegetable at the Tuskegee Institute, Carver discovered over 100 uses for sweet potatoes, including tapioca, vinegar, medicine, candy, a variety of flours, and even glue. During the 1920’s and ’30’s, Carver frequently advised Southern farmers to invest in sweet potatoes, which did well in the humid environment, provided a cheap source of nutrition, and, with their countless uses, could provide the struggling economy with a valuable source of income. Once the South adopted the sweet tuber, it stuck like glue (though not literally—that idea never quite caught on). Cooks below the Mason-Dixon line soon began replacing pumpkins and other squash with sweet potatoes in seasonal pies and casseroles. To this day the sweet potato remains the champion of roots on the Southern table.
Though it’s fairly easy to trace the development of sweet potatoes into casserole champions, the question still remains of how the casserole became what it is today: a sticky, candied, layered concoction of sugar, marshmallows, nuts, and a small portion of the healthy vegetable, for good measure. Why top an already sweetened potato with more sweet?
The introduction of the sweet potato to the marshmallow occurred around the time Carver was speechifying the vegetable in Tuskegee. Prior to the twentieth century, marshmallows were a luxury, restricted to the tables of the rich because of their time-intensive and expensive recipes. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, as well as some smart chefs, the process of making marshmallows was mechanized and mass-production became possible. With marshmallows readily available, cooks across the country began garnishing staples, like casseroles, with the recently rare treat. The first known recipes for sweet potato casserole with marshmallows appeared in an Angelus Marshmallow recipe booklet in 1917 and in a trade magazine for sweet potatoes and yams published in 1918, alongside a traditional Southern recipe for “possum an’ taters.”
The recipe spread like a vine, wrapping its way into every Southern chef’s repertoire and onto their tables. The addition of pecans to the fluffy mixture was only natural, given the nut’s preeminence in Southern cuisine. And as for the extra sugar usually found folded into the creamy casserole or caramelized on top? You can chock that up to the Southerner’s sweet tooth.
This Thanksgiving, sit back and smile as you shut your own mouth around that first, glorious spoonful of everyone’s favorite casserole.
Sweet Potato Casserole
3 cups cooked sweet potatoes, mashed
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup milk (approximately)
1/2 cup melted butter
1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup pecans
1- 1 1/2 cups marshmallows
Preheat oven to 350°. Place the cubed sweet potatoes in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, until very tender. Drain the potatoes and allow to cool. Place the potatoes in a large bowl, then add casserole ingredients (through vanilla extract) and mix with electric mixer. Grease 2 quart casserole dish prior to adding fresh mixture. In separate bowl combine topping ingredients. Sprinkle mixed topping over casserole. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes, or until golden.