Meridian Star

Columns

April 30, 2014

Sweet potato confessions

MERIDIAN — My lifelong love affair with sweet potatoes has been shaken and I have a confession to make.

    First understand that, as a kid, I ate more sweet potatoes than white potatoes. They were a staple in my home. A baked sweet potato topped with butter alongside a serving of chopped spinach was the go-to vegetable combination in my home. Those are still two of my favorite home-cooked side vegetables.

     During Thanksgiving and Christmas my family ate a lot of sweet potato casserole-type dishes. My maternal grandmother served them in a casserole, topped with almonds. My paternal grandmother served them in individual porcelain ramekins topped with finely chopped pecans. My mother baked them in orange halves and topped them with chopped walnuts, and my wife serves sweet potatoes in a casserole topped with a combination of pecans, walnuts and Rice Krispies.

     My family might have been a little nuts at times, but we were never crazy enough to top a sweet potato casserole with marshmallows.

     No one in my family has ever put a marshmallow on top of a sweet potato. No one. It’s just not done. It’s not what we do. Down to the core of our being we are no-marshmallow-on-sweet-potatoes type people.

     Longtime readers of this column know I am adamantly opposed to placing marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes. I have written a few dozen columns on the subject. I have received hate mail from marshmallow lovers. Marshmallow-on-sweet-potato fanatics have approached me at book signings to plead their case. It always falls on deaf ears.  It just makes no sense.

     I am an American first, a Southerner second, a Mississippian third, a Hattiesburger fourth, and an anti-marshmallow-on-sweet-potatoes advocate fifth. I am also a Methodist, which runs a little counterintuitive to the marshmallows-on-sweet-potatoes thing, but I’ve always been an rebel like that.

     In the 1990s I started offering sweet potato fries as a side item in a few of our restaurants. They were good but we were a little ahead of the curve and they didn’t sell.

     These days the demand for sweet potato fries has grown. We just added sweet potato fries back to a few of our menus and they have been a hit.

     This is the part where I come clean.

     In discussing the rebirth of sweet potato fries in our restaurants, our general manager Dusty Frierson had an idea. “In addition to a side order item, let’s serve a sweet potato fry appetizer with a marshmallow dipping sauce.”

     My knee-jerk reaction was, “No way. Marshmallows and sweet potatoes will never happen here.” He pleaded his case and I told him to give it a shot but that I was a devout, died-in-the-wool anti-marshmallowist and wouldn’t be taking part in any activity that involved the pairing of sweet potatoes with marshmallows.

     Towards the end of the day Frierson and Chef Jeremy Noffke went to work on a marshmallow dip to accompany the sweet potato fries. They began texting me pictures from the food-development session with rave reviews. Everyone in the kitchen and the front-of-the-house staff were gathering around to eat sweet potato fries with marshmallow dip. They were all ecstatic.

     I assumed they were kidding me because they knew my stance on sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Later that evening, my son and I went up to the restaurant. For kicks I cooked a few sweet potato fries and pulled out the marshmallow dip from the cooler. I am almost embarrassed to admit it, but after all of these years I can report that IT WAS AMAZING!

     I loved it. The sweet potato fries and marshmallow dip had the perfect combination of salty and sweet, cool and hot, new and classic when it comes to the treatment of a storied Southern staple. Brilliant. I became an instant convert.

     The way our menu development works is that we offer a newly created feature several times over the course of the year to get a track record on how it is prepared during line service, how it is received and how it will fit into the menu mix. After six or eight months we take, one or two of the most popular features— from the last hundred that we have offered— and put them on the menu. In the case of sweet potato fries with marshmallow dip, it was on the menu the next day. Fast track. Done. That has never happened before. Fifty-two years of anti-marshmallowism up in smoke.

     Will I start to eat marshmallows on sweet potato casserole now? No. Will I walk over to the restaurant and sneak a few sweet potato fries with marshmallow dip after I type this sentence? Yes.

     Confession is good for the soul— almost as good as sweet potato fries with marshmallow dip.

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