Sweet potatoes with marshmallows—it's a love-it or hate-it Thanksgiving classic, but I've always wondered what might inspire someone to add sugar to more sugar as a side dish for a savory meal.
Despite the sweet-potato-marshmallow combo's long history (with origins in colonial America), good marketing tactics have had a much larger part in the popularity of this dish.
Early American Beginnings
Long before these tubers were smothered in marshmallows, sweet potatoes were a staple across the Americas. Native to Central and South America, they were brought to North America by the Spanish during colonial times. Sweet potatoes soon took off in popularity, especially in the southern United States, where the humid climate provided comfortable growing conditions.
The Thanksgiving Tradition
Contrary to popular belief, sweet potatoes were not present at "the first Thanksgiving" aka the arrival of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in November 1621. The sweet vegetable did however begin appearing at seasonal holidays in the 1800s as a replacement for pumpkin in pies and other fall dishes.
It wasn't until the early 1900s that the fateful pairing of sweet potatoes with marshmallows became known in the culinary world. In the late 1800s, the creation of marshmallows was a painstaking process, making them a costly product savored mainly by the wealthy. Yet by the turn of the century, with improvements in mass production, marshmallows became a cheaply made product (but with the lasting reputation of being uber-fancy).
The novelty of this new product opened up a new world for marketers, who tried to find any way possible to incorporate the marshmallows into American diets. According to Saveur, it was 1917 when the first instance of sweet potatoes baked with a coat of marshmallows appeared in a recipe booklet commissioned by Angelus Marshmallows.
Since then, the dish found its way into more and more culinary publications, allowing for nationwide recognition. Today, it's one of Thanksgiving's most popular side dishes, right up there next to the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole.