But sweet potatoes weren’t only for Thanksgiving. James Parkinson featured them as one of several vegetables for the ninth course at his 1851 Thousand Dollar Dinner, the result of an annual culinary competition between two clubs of wealthy men – one from New York and one from Philadelphia. The group had first enjoyed a magnificent banquet at New York’s Delmonico’s Restaurant. Not to be outdone, the Philadelphians politely invited the New Yorkers to James W. Parkinson’s restaurant in Philadelphia.
They settled the date for April 19, which made things rather tricky for Parkinson, as it was between seasons. At this point in the nineteenth century, it had become very fashionable for elaborate banqueting menus to feature special preparations of rare, early season, or out-of-season vegetables as a light course toward the end of dinner, which became known as entremets de légumes. Today’s high-speed transportation methods allow us to enjoy fresh produce year round. But for Parkinson, procuring these specialties would have hinged on how quickly items could have been shipped to Philadelphia from warmer locales without spoiling. As noted by New York guest R. B. Valentine, an avid epicure, the timing “took the caterer greatly at a disadvantage as to both game and vegetables. He could only obtain what he did by special use of both telegraph and express.” Sweet potatoes love hot weather, so it is likely he obtained them from a southern location using these methods.
What we don’t know is how he served them. He may have chosen a simple preparation that really showcased the flavor of the sweet potato, such as baked or boiled, but since this was such a fancy meal, it is likely he chose a presentation that was a bit more elegant, such as souffléd, croquettes, or even “creamed” by sautéing in a little milk. This last technique sounded so interesting, I had to try it. Here’s the instructions from the 1873 publication The Science of Health: “Slice them (sweet potatoes) into warm milk, cover close, and cook till they begin to break; salt slightly, and mix them until but little milk is visible. This dish is also very good made with Irish and sweet potatoes mixed.”
Sautéing the sweet potatoes in milk made them extremely tender and added a savory flavor, almost as if they had been baked with cheese. A very easy, yet pretty presentation:
Sweet Potatoes Souffléd and Sweet Potato Croquettes sound equally delicious:
Souffléd - Cut them up raw into quarter-inch slices, pare them oval-shaped two and three-quarters by one and a half inches, then fry slowly in white fat to have them to have them cook without coloring or stiffening; drain and ten minutes later throw them back into hot fat; they should puff out considerably.
Croquettes - After the potatoes are roasted cut them lengthwise in two and empty out the insides; to this add salt, nutmeg, egg yolks and fresh butter; mix well together, and when the preparation is thoroughly cold roll it up into inch and three-quarter diameter balls, dip them in eggs, then roll in bread-crumbs and fry to a fine golden brown; dress in a circle, having a bunch of fried parsley to decorate the center.
(From: The Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer)
Sweet Potato Casserole
- 3 large sweet potatoes
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- 2 tbsp butter
- ¼ cup orange juice
Yield: 6 servings – (I often double the recipe for a crowd).
Delicious! Happy Thanksgiving!