I Swear By This One Ingredient to Make the Best Sweet Potato Casserole
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.
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.
I use Rivulet Pecan Liqueur, an American-made spirit produced by a Black-owned company in Kentucky.