In many families, Thanksgiving is notorious for being fertile ground for fights over sensitive subjects. Be it politics, money or differences in religion, some topics are best left undiscussed around the dinner table. However, one vector for holiday discord is difficult to avoid when it shows up on the Thanksgiving table: sweet potatoes.
Whatever your view on their flavor, sweet potatoes certainly visually evoke the spirit of Thanksgiving. Much like the pumpkin, sweet potatoes’ orange palette lends itself to the earthy warmth colors of fall, evoking the feeling of a bounteous harvest.
Though not without their detractors, sweet potatoes have jumped in popularity over the last 20 years. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, consumption of sweet potatoes rose 42 percent between 2000 and 2016.
When it comes to recipe specifics, opinions are strong. Sweet potato casserole, a mainstay of many Thanksgiving meals, can be made in dozens of different ways, none of them a greater lightning rod for discussion than using a marshmallow topping.
When informally polled by The Herald Journal recently, readers were starkly divided on the marshmallow issue, with only 56.5 percent responding “yes” to the question “Should Thanksgiving sweet potato dishes include marshmallows?” and 43.5 percent saying “no.”
The level of disagreement merited further examination, and we posted the question on The Herald Journal’s Facebook page, where both sides were quickly represented.
“Definitely!” Sherry Wells Brown wrote. “Marshmallows are the best part.”
Commenter Chad Hawkes concurred: “Cut yams with a homemade caramel sauce on them and mini marshmallows toasted on top, one of my favorite traditions to prepare. Happy Thanksgiving!”
Those against the marshmallow topping were more blunt, including Joy Brisighella’s Randy Jackson-esque “It’s a no for me, dog,” and Diane Lindley’s “A big NO.”
Overall, answers trended slightly toward pro-marshmallow, but much like the initial poll, responses were divided. The freedom of the comments section, however, saw an even wider variety of positions crop up.
“Of course they should,” Darrell Wyatt wrote. “However, the marshmallows should be toasted to a deeper brown” than the admittedly under-done ‘mallows seen in the post’s example photo.
Even among those who enjoy the marshmallow topping, technique is a sticking point. Wyatt wasn’t the only one who noticed the perhaps unorthodox nature of the picture.
“Heck yes they should, But the picture is definitely not what it should look like,” Holly Baird wrote. “Those ones look nasty.”
Aubree Marble Clark also took umbrage with the methodology on display: “Yes! But the potatoes should not be mashed/liquified like the article photo is showing…”
A couple of commenters offered alternative sugary sweet potato dishes, including a pecan-crumble topping that Kaylee Ann Lewis said was “much better” than the marshmallow version. Another option, offered by Rebecca Loyet Mason, is the classic candied yams.
“I make my yams with butter and brown sugar so it comes out like caramel!!” Mason wrote.
Candied yams predate the marshmallow-laden sweet potato casserole and offer what may feel like a more elegant holiday treat. (Although yams and sweet potatoes are distinct plants, in the U.S. the words are generally interchangeable.)
One faction eschews dessert potatoes altogether, preferring “savory, not sweet” sweet potatoes, in the words of commenter Tammy Hill Hooton.
Recipes for savory potatoes — though maybe less dominant in the Thanksgiving spread than the casserole or candied varieties — are very popular, often making use of holiday mainstay spices rosemary and sage.
Beyond the marshmallow debate, sweet potatoes in general often fall into “love them” or “hate them” categories, with many avoiding the vegetable altogether on their Thanksgiving plates.
Commenter Laurie Jackson said marshmallows were acceptable on sweet-potato casserole, if only to avoid the tuber’s flavor.
“How else are you going to disguise the taste of the yams (or sweet potatoes, whichever),” she wrote. “Ick.”
Scott Tolentino took the hardest line of any poster on the vegetable: “Sweet potatoes of ANY type shouldn’t be allowed at Thanksgiving dinners. YUCK!”
The combination of two sometimes-divisive foods makes the sweet potato casserole feel of a piece with beloved and sometimes-maligned Utah food traditions like green Jell-O with carrots, but it’s more likely to appear at a Thanksgiving in the Midwest than in Utah.
“If I’m sharing Thanksgiving with the family I grew up in, in the Midwest, then YES!” Sara Goekerson wrote. “But for Thanksgiving at my house today, hold the marshmallows and use olive oil and rosemary instead, please.”
One’s taste for sweet potatoes, like most Thanksgiving foods, seems heavily dependent on family tradition in holidays past. As far as traditions go, however, marshmallows on sweet potato casserole is relatively new — only just passing its hundred-year anniversary in 2017.
In fact, rather than a time-honored treat passed from generation to generation going back to the pilgrims, marshmallow-sweet-potato casserole was cooked up by Janet McKenzie Hill and brand Angelus Marshmallows in 1917 in an effort to help sell mass-produced marshmallows to the American public. The result was a resounding success, and given the passion of its proponents to this day, the marshmallow-sweet-potato casserole seems destined to remain a staple of Thanksgiving cuisine.