The surprising reason sweet potatoes and marshmallows were first combined

Sweet potatoes and marshmallows weren't always a classic pair. Here's how the holiday favorite got it's start.

Holidays: the time of the tuber

Good news for sweet potato lovers, as well as North Carolina’s sweet potato farmers: the state’s favorite sweet spud is becoming more popular. Sweet potato fries are found all year long. So are baked sweet potatoes; in the oven and on the grill.

But the holidays are still the time of the tuber, starting with Thanksgiving. There is a good chance that, as you celebrate with family and friends, a casserole made with sweet potatoes and marshmallows will be served. It's the classic, sweet side dish. So, just how did that mixture come to be?

Well, it turns out you can credit the dish to smart marketing! But let’s start with a bit of history first.

The first sweet potato recipes

Sweet potatoes weren’t present at the first Thanksgiving. Sweet potatoes are native to Central and South America. Colonists from Europe introduced the spuds to the new world. 

Based on information from Smithsonian and Library of Congress websites, it appears the first published recipe using sweet potatoes was in an American cookbook from 1796. It's called "American Cookery." The recipe is for “potatoe pudding” but it’s believed to be calling for sweet potatoes. There are definite sweet potato recipe examples by the 1820s, including this one from Colonial Williamsburg: 

Sweet Potato Pudding

Boil one pound of sweet potatos very tender, rub them while hot through a colander; add six eggs well beaten, three quarters of a pound of powdered sugar, three quarters of butter, and some grated nutmeg and lemon peel, with a glass of brandy; put a paste in the dish, and when the pudding is done, sprinkle the top with sugar, and cover it with bits of citron. Irish potato pudding is made in the same manner, but is not so good.  

This recipe was written by  Mary Randolph, in “The Virginia Housewife,” in 1827. 

So while the sweet potato was a common food by the 1820s, there are still no marshmallows.  

The first recipe for sweet potato casserole

The first time sweet potatoes and marshmallows are mentioned together is in 1917, in a recipe booklet published by the Angelus Marshmallow company. In an effort to sell more marshmallows, the company hired Janet McKenzie Hill, founder of the Boston Cooking School magazine, to develop recipes using marshmallows. The booklet contained the recipe for “mashed sweet potatoes baked with a marshmallow topping.” 

One decade later, a popular cookbook called Vital Vegetables (1928) gave readers a browned sweet potatoes with marshmallows recipe.

As many Americans know, the mixture has been common ever since.

—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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