Sweet potato casserole, a traditional American Thanksgiving dish of mashed sweet potatoes, brown sugar, milk, eggs, and cinnamon baked with a marshmallow topping. A Thanksgiving classic, sweet potato casserole is a sweetened potato side dish that balances the tartness of savory Thanksgiving staples like cranberry sauce, turkey and green bean casserole.
History of Thanksgiving
While most modern Americans sit down to Thanksgiving tables full of turkey, stuffing, sweet potato casserole and cranberry sauce, most of these foods were not eaten at the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621. The first Thanksgiving was actually a three-day harvest celebration by the pilgrim settlers and records show that indeed the local Wampanoag Native American tribe did participate, which aligns with Thanksgiving lore told to American children in schools.
But was turkey the center of the first Thanksgiving dinner? Likely no, however wild turkey and other fowl were common near the New England settlement and cannot be ruled out. Cranberries were also common in the area, but modern staples like green beans and potatoes were not indigenous to the area. Because of the Plymouth settlement’s close proximity to the sea, seafood like mussels and lobster were likely eaten – but seafood as a traditional Thanksgiving accompaniment has long been forgotten.
History of sweet potatoes in North America
While sweet potatoes and their yam counterparts are from the Americas, they were originally cultivated in South and Central America. The first area to grow sweet potatoes is unknown but there is evidence they were eaten in Peru as far back as 8000 years ago, and in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico dating back 5000 years.
Sweet potatoes were likely carried across the Pacific Ocean by early Polynesian explorers as variations of the potato have also been found in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia as far back as 1000 years ago, before European settlers came to the Americas.
The sweet potato was a commonly grown food in the American South in the early 1800’s, as dishes using sweet potatoes were found in cookbooks from the time. While creamy vegetables dishes were common throughout Europe and brought to the United States by immigrants, traditional sweet potato casserole originated from sweet potato pies that were common in the southern states and was a dish made most often by African-American slaves.
Today sweet potatoes are grown throughout the American South, particularly in states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi. While they were a common food in the early 1900’s, they fell out of favor in popular cuisine but have experienced a comeback in recent years based on their sweet flavor, versatility and high nutrient content.
Sweet potato casserole history & traditions
There are two traditional variations of sweet potato casserole and many Americans have very strong feelings about one or the other. The older variation is baked sweet potatoes with a candied pecan topping, which is generally found in the south as many pecan trees can be found in the southern states. The newer, and more contentious, variation is sweetened potatoes with a marshmallow topping that is baked until golden brown in the oven.
The origins of sweet potato casserole with marshmallows is a hot topic in the United States during Thanksgiving. The dish is generally accepted to have been created in the 1910’s by the Angelus Marshmallow company, which also created Cracker Jacks. In a marketing push to get Americans to use more marshmallows in everyday cooking, a cookbook using the fluffy and sweet candy was released with the first known written recipe for “candied sweet potatoes”, or what is now known as sweet potato casserole. While none of the other recipes were hits, the sweet potatoes with baked marshmallows took off and over time became a traditional Thanksgiving side dish eaten throughout the country 100 years later.
Sweet potato casserole: simply & sweet Thanksgiving side dish
Love it or hate it, sweet potato casserole is an American Thanksgiving tradition. Using naturally sweet baked and mashed potatoes as a base, the dish is further sweetened with brown sugar and baked with eggs, butter, milk and cinnamon. The dish is then topped with marshmallows and baked until golden brown and served as a side with turkey and gravy at Thanksgiving tables across the country on the fourth Thursday of every November.
Sweet potato casserole is an easy and memorable American comfort food dish that is sure to win over any guests with a sweet tooth!
- 6 lb sweet potatoes
- 1 cups dark brown sugar
- ½ cup whole milk
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter , melted
- 2 large eggs , lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 cups marshmallows
- Bake sweet potatoes at 400 F for 1 hour or until tender.
- Let stand until cool to touch, then peel and mash the sweet potatoes.
- Reduce oven temperature to 350 F.
- Grease a 11x9 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or butter.
- In a large bowl, stir together the mashed sweet potatoes, brown sugar, milk, melted butter, eggs, salt, and cinnamon until combined. Pour mixture into the baking dish.
- Cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover, and bake 10 additional minutes.