Joni Woolf: The ultimate Thanksgiving side dish — sweet potatoes

Published 10:19 pm Friday, November 9, 2018

Many references to the ubiquitous Thanksgiving side dish refer to it as “yams.” Others use the familiar term “sweet potatoes.” No less a food authority than John Egerton says he has given up understanding the difference between sweet potatoes and yams — though they are different. He says, “Never mind that the sweet potato belongs to the morning glory family, and is not even distantly related botanically to the yam … By whatever name,” he says, “sweet potatoes are to the soul food and country cooking of the South what beans are to Boston: a signature dish of symbolic importance and great public favor.” I could not have said it better.
Egerton’s favorite method of preparing sweet potatoes is as follows:
First, boil 3 or 4 large sweet potatoes in their jackets until tender. Peel and mash the potatoes while still hot, and melt 1 stick of butter in them. (If the mixture seems too thick and dry, add some sweet milk a tablespoon at a time.) Season to taste with sugar and spices: Egerton adds ¼ cup dark brown sugar, ¼ teaspoon of ginger, and ½ teaspoon each of cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg. Beat 2 whole eggs with a wire whisk and add them to the potatoes. Then pour the mixture into a lightly buttered oven-proof dish. On top, sprinkle a blend of the following: ¼ cup of packed brown sugar, ½ cup crushed corn flakes, ½ cup of chopped pecans and ¼ stick of melted butter. Bake for 30 minutes in a 350-degree F. oven. This is much like Bourbon Sweet Potatoes, a recipe featured in the Calvary Episcopal Church cookbook, Food and Faith, that we wrote about two or three years ago. (Note: Egerton’s recipe has less sugar than the next two.)
Another favorite sweet potato recipe that I never hear anyone speak of anymore is Candied Sweet Potatoes. My Grandmother Williams did not cook much. But her Candied Sweet Potatoes were like nothing else on the Thanksgiving table. I loved them (they were full of sugar and vanilla). I found a recipe years ago that is close enough. It is in Mildred Warren’s cookbook, The Art of Southern Cooking, and though it is a bit tedious, it is satisfying to the palate (though very sweet).

Candied Sweet Potatoes
1 ½ cups sugar, plus 2 to 3 teaspoons
½ cup water
Dash salt
3 to 4 medium sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon vanilla
Mix 1 ½ cups sugar, water and salt. Stir until sugar is almost dissolved. Place on top of stove on high heat. Peel potatoes, slice in half, then slice in 3 or 4 long pieces. As you cut the potatoes, drop them in the water and sugar mixture. Cook, uncovered, on high heat about 10 minutes and then on medium heat for 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender and the juice is reduced. Add butter, and when syrup is cooked down about half, add flavoring and pour into shallow baking dish. Sprinkle 2 or 3 teaspoons of sugar over the potatoes and run under the broiler for 5 minutes or so, to glaze and brown a bit. A dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, or allspice may be added if desired.

Then there is one that I found on the Internet when I was searching for yet another recipe. This one is easy, fast and good.

Sweet Potatoes, Baked
5 medium sweet potatoes
8 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ginger
1 cup white sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Wash, peel, and chop potatoes into ½-inch slices, to go in a 9 x 13 inch pan. Melt butter in medium pot, add sugars and spices. Turn off heat, add vanilla, stir. Pour mixture over potatoes, coating all. Cover with foil, bake 30 minutes. Remove and baste. Cover, return to oven and bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

For a festive occasion, I would probably choose John Egerton’s recipe: it makes a lovely presentation. But for stirring up memories, Mildred Warren’s recipe fits the bill. The third one is quick and easy. So here are three good choices, whether you call them sweet potatoes or yams. As long as they are tasty, you’ve done the name(s) justice. (I had a fourth, called by Mildred Warren “a famous recipe at the New Perry Hotel Dining Room in Perry, Georgia.” It calls for shredding the potatoes. We’ll save that one for Christmas.)

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at