As the holiday season is poised to begin its glittery gallop toward us, the biggest question is not dressing or stuffing, jellied or whole berry, or even Elf on the Shelf or The Grinch.
The greatest unanswered holiday question is: How did marshmallows get on top of the sweet potato casserole?
This time of the tuber, which runs until the last wing is eaten on New Year’s Day, is also the time of the squishy, sweet balloons. Whether it’s the full-sized marshmallows, which loll around like snowmen in a heat wave, or the tiny ones, which turn the top to a cobblestone walkway of sugar, it’s difficult to spot a sweet potato casserole in the wild without them.
Even my grandmother – a meticulous country cook who made her own jams, peach pickles, rolls, pies and cakes – would pick up a bag of marshmallows this time of year. She’d scoop out orange halves and mix the pulp with cooked sweet potato, then bedeck the surface with mini marshmallows.
We kids at her Thanksgiving table thought dessert had come during the meal, in the form of sugary treats in a parent-approved vegetable form. We adored them.
Me, I have too much respect for the sweet potato to plop an air mattress with a week’s worth of sugar on it. Not that I have anything against sugar – my favorite Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole has bourbon, pecans and brown sugar. I don’t want marshmallows getting in the way of the bourbon.
Therefore, I consulted experts – people pre-burning holiday calories at the gym – and found definite preferences concerning full-size marshmallows vs. mini marshmallows.
Mini fans enjoy the brown, melted surface that they offer to the casserole. People who favor the big ones do so precisely because the marshmallows won’t completely melt. They like to chomp on a wad of semi-congealed marshmallow along with the antioxidant-packed potato.
Written recipes for sweet potato casseroles or puddings go back at least to the late 1700s, according to the Library of Congress website, including one in “American Cookery,” which was printed in 1796. That recipe used eggs, milk and nutmeg with the cooked sweet potatoes, but no sugar at all, and certainly no marshmallows. Sugar was costly, and would have been reserved for special-occasion desserts or tea.
Because sweet potatoes have been grown in the South for generations – they produce abundantly even in poor soil – casseroles have been around here forever, too, long before commercially produced marshmallows bounced onto the scene.
As it turns out, the marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole may have been born in the same place as another oft-maligned but in-demand Thanksgiving dish, the green bean casserole: in the mind of a marketer.
The original recipe for green bean casserole, which my mother called “three-can casserole” (because that’s what it consists of), was created by the Campbell’s Soup company in 1955 to sell its product. That product, cream of mushroom soup, binds the green beans and supports the canned fried onion topping.
According to the “The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets,” in 1917 the Chicago company that made Angelus Marshmallows (the same one that created Cracker Jack, by the way) hired a well-known cookbook author of the time to develop a recipe booklet encouraging home cooks to cook with marshmallows.
Besides congealed salad, frozen fruit salad and marshmallow mint sauce, the booklet included a recipe for mashed sweet potato casserole with a marshmallow topping. The other recipes, mercifully, melted away, but the casserole stuck.
By the 1920s, sweet potatoes and marshmallows were seen hanging out together in cookbooks all over the place. The unholy match had been made.
Look carefully at a photo in the recipe booklet (it’s online) and you’ll see square-ish marshmallows on the casserole. Back then, marshmallows were made individually in square molds. But 1954 saw the invention of that technological wonder, the marshmallow extruder. The tubular chute shot them out and cut them to size, resulting in an automated barrage of casserole toppings such as the world had never seen before, and which continues to this day.
So, stand back. They’re coming.
Debbie Moose is a freelance food writer and cookbook author. She can be reached at debbiemoose.com, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.