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Sweet Potato Casserole Was Invented by the Marshmallow Industry

Yes, Americans were, in fact, taught to eat sweet potato casserole by a corporation that not only mass-marketed marshmallows, but also brought you Cracker Jacks.
November 24, 2015, 12:00am
Photo via Flickr user suziedwards

While sweet potato casserole topped with marshmallows may just be the most damn American dish to ever come about, it's also one of the most divisive. People either love its sugary embrace or despise it. If you have ever invited a non-American friend over for Thanksgiving, you know that the dish is a total shocker for those who didn't grow up with it. In the eyes of the world, we're eating candy on top of a potato—which, of course, we totally are.

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But that's not the weirdest thing about sweet potato casserole. Did you know that the ubiquitous Thanksgiving dish was invented by corporate interests trying to sway American taste buds in favor of a "light and fluffy" treat that had just been introduced to the marketplace?

RECIPE: Sweet Potato Butternut Squash Baked Mash

Yes, Americans were, in fact, taught to eat sweet potato casserole by a corporation that not only mass-marketed marshmallows, but also brought you Cracker Jacks.

As it turns out, marshmallows have a strange and interesting history. They started as a medicine, used to treat problems like sore throats. Marshmallows date back to ancient Egypt and were based on a plant called Althaea officinalis, a.k.a. the marshmallow plant. A medicine derived from that plant was served up in a sweetened glob, thereby making it more palatable. In 19th-century France, confectioners figured out that the glob of marshmallow sweetness was pretty tasty in and of itself even without the medicinal mallow root. And it could be made simply from sugar, water, and gelatin. A candy was born.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a gentleman named Frederick Rueckheim came to America from Germany. He and his brother Louis were candy geniuses. In 1893, they introduced the prototype for the Cracker Jack. Then they turned their attention to the marshmallow. And thanks to Saveur, we now know that the first recipe for mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows dates to 1917—and it was developed as a result of the Rueckheim brothers' marshmallow corporation trying to boost sales. The company was called Angelus Marshmallows, and it introduced mass-made marshmallows to Americans in 1907.

By 1917, Angelus Marshmallow was looking for a way to promote marshmallow-eating throughout the US. They sought out Janet McKenzie Hill, the founder of the Boston Cooking School Magazine, to help them develop recipes that included marshmallows. Hill came up with a booklet of recipes designed "to encourage home cooks to embrace the candy as an everyday ingredient."

So, an early 20th-century marshmallow corporation is behind the invention of a dish that many of us think of as timeless and essential for Thanksgiving. Hill's booklet contained "the first documented appearance of mashed sweet potatoes baked with a marshmallow topping."

And what could be more American than that?

Let's just admit we are all pansies to corporate interests and enjoy the sugary, pillowy weirdness of the sweet potato casserole. Happy Thanksgiving to all!