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In this installment of Diaspora Dining, Jessica B. Harris' series on foods of the African diaspora, the author and historian offers her version of sweet potato casserole. It's a dish she only came to enjoy as an adult, omitting the marshmallows and adding some nutty flavor without adding nuts.

EatingWell.com, November 2022


Credit: Jillian Atkinson

Recipe Summary


Nutrition Profile:


It's that time of year when the bright-flavored light meals of summer morph into the more autumnal tastes that will grace our tables during the coming months. The taste spectrum cycles from the vine-ripe tomatoes, bitey chiles and sweet corn to those of Brussel sprouts, cabbages, root vegetables and, dare I say it, pumpkin spices. It's time to bring out those roasting pans and casserole dishes.

In her book Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties, the late Julia Reed devoted an entire chapter to the Southern love of casseroles. While the green bean one that often turns up at funeral repasts, usually topped with canned fried onions, was never a part of my experience, I was tickled to learn that we shared a love of sweet potato ones. I grew up eating a candied sweet potato casserole—that we mistakenly called candied yams—every year with the Thanksgiving turkey. (Enslaved Africans who were brought to North America missed the yams they were familiar with. In the New World, they saw sweet potato as a close substitute and called them yams, thereby creating a linguistic confusion that lasts until this day.)

The casserole came to the table piping hot in a Pyrex dish that had its own holder for table use. That was so long ago that the Pyrex dish would now be revered as mid-century modern. The casserole was topped with gooey melted marshmallows. While I loved them then, now, like my friend, Julia, I feel that the marshmallows are overkill that should probably stop after diners leave the kiddie table. 

Many more-adult versions of this classic casserole swap out the marshmallows for some form of pecan, either layered or mixed into a topping. However, I'm a quirky eater who doesn't like the texture of nuts in my food, and I don't want to spend the meal picking pieces of pecan out of my sweet potatoes, even if they're toasted in butter beforehand! Up until recently, it's been, "Give me plain sweet potatoes—that's enough!"

Then a friend introduced me to a pecan liqueur called Rivulet. It was a revelation. 

The liqueur, a brandy infused with the distinctive taste of roasted pecans, gave me the hint of toasted pecan flavor that I liked without those pesky nut pieces sticking in my teeth. It was the perfect addition to what I'm now calling my "Purist's Simple Sweet Potato Casserole."

This essay is part of the series Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora. In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.

a process photo of the Sweet Potato Casserole being mixed together in a bowl
Credit: Jillian Atkinson


Ingredient Checklist


Instructions Checklist
  • Preheat oven to 375°F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

  • Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add sweet potatoes and return to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until the sweet potatoes are fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain.

  • Transfer the sweet potatoes to a large bowl. Mash with a fork until mostly smooth. Add eggs; stir until combined. Add brown sugar, milk, butter, liqueur, vanilla, lemon juice and salt; stir until combined. Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared dish.

  • Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.


I use Rivulet Pecan Liqueur, an American-made spirit produced by a Black-owned company in Kentucky.

Nutrition Facts

2/3 cup
215 calories; protein 4g; carbohydrates 30g; dietary fiber 3g; sugars 18g; added sugar 20g; fat 9g; saturated fat 5g; mono fat 3g; poly fat 1g; cholesterol 68mg; vitamin a iu 16752IU; vitamin b3 niacin 1mg; vitamin c 17mg; vitamin d iu 15IU; vitamin e iu 1IU; folate 12mg; vitamin k 3mg; sodium 199mg; calcium 53mg; iron 1mg; magnesium 26mg; phosphorus 82mg; potassium 440mg; zinc 1mg; omega 6 fatty acid 1g; niacin equivalents 2mg; selenium 5mcg.