Sweet potato casserole with a generous topper of marshmallows graces countless Thanksgiving tables across America. The combination is a classic — and frequently enjoyed — pairing of sweet on sweet that you’re bound to find regardless of where your holiday travels take you in the United States.
It’s not, however, the original way the country preferred to prepare its sweet potatoes. For centuries, early Americans preferred their sweet potatoes prepared without an extra sugary addition. The marshmallow top became the classic preparation in the most American way: A company with smart marketing sold us on it.
In the 1870s, German brothers Frederick and Louis Rueckheim moved to America. They invested their savings into a confectionery business and made a name for themselves 20 years later with a little brand of sweet popcorn you might have heard of called Cracker Jacks. The product quickly took off, but it was far from the only sweet treat the brothers hung their hat on. Their second best-seller, Angelus Marshmallows, which debuted in 1907, changed the Thanksgiving table just as much as Cracker Jacks changed every visit to the ballpark.
Angelus Marshmallows were some of the first widely available commercial marshmallows. To encourage more people to buy them, the company turned to product placement. According to Saveur, Angelus Marshmallows hired the founder of Boston Cooking School Magazine, Janet McKenzie Hill, in 1917 to come up with a book of marshmallow recipes “to encourage home cooks to embrace the candy as an everyday ingredient.” Among the recipes that Hill incorporated marshmallows into was sweet potato casserole.
Americans were already familiar with sweet potatoes when the recipe book made its way onto the shelves of home cooks. Documents from the Library of Congress found the first recipe related to sweet potato casserole was in “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons, which is considered the country’s first cookbook and was published in 1789. The recipe for what was dubbed potato pudding had sweet potatoes, milk, nutmeg, and egg whites.
The preference for even sweeter sweet potato recipes grew over time in American kitchens. Candied sweet potatoes solidified their place in the canon of American cooking in 1893 with Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook. The Library of Congress also notes that George Washington Carver published two different ways to make candied sweet potatoes in his collection of more than 100 sweet potato recipes.
Regardless of how they were prepared — candied or left to their natural sweetness — sweet potatoes were officially a traditional Thanksgiving dish in the 1800s, as evidenced by their place as side dish suggestions in books like the Boston Cooking School Cookbook and Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1887.
With that type of history, you’d be forgiven for assuming that throwing candy into the sweet potato mix was universally embraced right off the bat. But, outside of the northern sphere of influence that those from the Boston Cooking School held, marshmallows were initially considered too much sweetness. Saveur notes that Southerners “appeared to respect sweet potatoes too much to pair them with candy,” while Northerners “embraced marshmallows as the latest innovation.”
Today, the regional line between how the North and South prepare their sweet potatoes has generally faded. The blog Deep South Dish calls a topping of mini marshmallows “simply traditional” and “the way we usually roll Down South.” In the Northeast, marshmallow preference stayed strong through the 1970s and beyond with recipes like the “New England Yam Bake” topped with peaches and marshmallows.
Some modern recipes forgo the marshmallows to highlight the natural sweetness of the root vegetable. Still, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top remains an American classic that has nearly as much a guaranteed place on the Thanksgiving table as pumpkin pie.