“You want me to put WHAT on top?!” Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes: 1929-1933

The swamp of one-term presidents – specifically presidents who failed to be reelected – is not a deep one to drain.

The reasons an incumbent president loses reelection are numerous and nuanced, but fall into a couple of broad categories. Either they are completely incompetent in the face of global or national crisis(es), or they have deep personal and/or moral failings. It is rare that one president manages to fulfil both categories so equally.

Despite not living in America, the election has dominated headlines here in the UK since November. Until quite recently there was still a dedicated ‘US election’ tab on the BBC website for anyone looking for a quick and cheap way to dramatically increase their blood pressure.

On this historic day I wanted to look back on another one-term Republican president: Herbert Hoover. He was president from 1929 to 1933 and is remembered mainly as the president during the Great Depression.

Guided by a belief that federal government should not have a direct role in bolstering the economy (but rather it was down to local authorities to support local businesses), Hoover ended up reacting to the early days of the Depression by downplaying it somewhat, believing it would be a short-lived economic blip.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a blip. Over the next few years, millions of people lost their livelihoods and homes. Tens of thousands of these people ended up living in shanty towns made of cardboard and whatever else could be scavenged, begging for food and work and queuing outside free soup kitchens for hours each day. Out of damning criticism of Hoover’s perceived incompetence, these places were nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’.

By the time of the next election in 1932, Hoover’s popularity was at an all time low – there were even assassination attempts made against him. Unsurprisingly, he lost both the popular and electoral vote by a landslide. This paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt to become the first Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson’s term ended in 1921.

None of this has got anything to do with food…

Well, no. And yes.

When Roosevelt took over in March 1933, his wife Eleanor was reportedly horrified to find cockroaches in the White House kitchen. Later her housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt wrote:

I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean. This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary. Mrs. Roosevelt and I poked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out. It was that sort of place. Dark-looking cupboards, a huge old-fashioned gas range, sinks with time-worn wooden drains, one rusty wooden dumb waiter. The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.

The White House Diary, Henrietta Nesbitt

Yikes.

Yet despite the supposed state of the kitchen, Hoover apparently liked his food. He would eat pretty much anything, wolfing down plates of pie, baked hams and soups with such speed that his kitchen staff used to keep bets on how quickly he would finish a meal. His own cook, Mary Rattley commented that “Mr. Hoover is the easiest man in the world to please.”

Easy or not, Hoover had a particular fondness for sweets, which is where today’s experiment comes in. Taken from The Presidents’ Own Whitehouse Cookbook, Herbert Hoover’s sweet potato (emphasis on the word ‘sweet’) seemed a timely recipe.

The recipe.

The instructions read like simple mashed sweet potato at first. I dutifully peeled and boiled two large potatoes before mashing them with butter, nutmeg and cream. The next step was to add some ground walnuts, which seemed more unusual but quite promising. Then things got…strange.

“Dot the top with marshmallows” the recipe instructed, “and brown as if for a meringue.”

Marshmallows – was this a savoury dish or a sweet one? A quick Google informed me that sweet potato with marshmallows is a fairly common dish in America (not so much in the UK), so maybe I was about to have all my culinary preconceptions challenged by this.

I covered the still-hot mashed sweet potato with mini marshmallows and baked it for a few minutes until they were just starting to brown.

I do not think this is the official Presidential design.

The verdict.

It looked and smelled fairly appetising, I have to say.

I like marshmallows and I love sweet potato, so there was nothing inherently dreadful to me about the recipe, but I still found the concept a bit unnerving. With the marshmallows oozing small pools of melted sugar over the potato, I dolloped a spoon into my bowl and dug in.

My first thought was that the combination was a little jarring. The sweet potato tasted exactly as I’d expected – with a slightly nuttier aftertaste because of the walnuts – but it was a pretty earthy, naturally sweet flavour. In comparison, the marshmallows tasted quite synthetic and I found the mix a but off putting in all honesty.

It wasn’t as sweet as I’d expected, though. Being baked had leant a toastiness to the marshmallows which I think tempered some of their sugariness. The walnuts – which I’d ground to a coarse dust – gave the sweet potato additional texture and worked really well with the creaminess of it all.

Family friendly version.

Would I make it again? Perhaps, with fewer marshmallows. I really liked the walnut addition to the sweet potato, so would definitely incorporate that into future cooking.

Ultimately this was a very American dish which made it perfect for today of all days, and as the USA enters a new era and administration of hope and unity I wish all my American readers the best.

E x

Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes

2 large sweet potatoes
60 ml (or 1/4 cup) cream
60g (or 1/4 cup) ground walnuts
1 table spoon butter
Mini marshmallows
Nutmeg
Salt

  1. Peel and boil the sweet potato until soft.
  2. Mash the sweet potato with the cream, butter, salt and nutmeg until completely smooth.
  3. Stir in the ground walnuts.
  4. Dot the top with mini marshmallows and heat in the oven at 190 degrees C (375 F) for a couple of minutes until the marshmallows are golden brown.

5 thoughts on ““You want me to put WHAT on top?!” Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes: 1929-1933

  1. Just before Thanksgiving, I was asking an American friend about his family’s plans given lockdown and the conversation turned to the menu. He explained that “sweet potato casserole” (his name for exactly this dish, apart from no ground walnuts) was as essential to his Thanksgiving meal as the turkey and the cranberry sauce. Although the sweet potato thing sounds like a dessert to me, he was adamant that it is served as a side dish to the turkey. His view is that this is the sole annual appearance of the dish for him family and they would never consider it at any other time.

    This seems to be quite a common view in America.

    I still haven’t been able to bring myself to try it.

    1. Ah! Yes that explains it – loads of stuff online seemed to link this with Thanksgiving too. Thanks for confirming it!

      It’s definitely not something I’ve encountered in Britain. And your friend will obviously know better than me, but it just seemed far too sweet to be a savoury dish! Very odd. I’m glad I’ve tried it though, the sweet potato with walnuts was a revelation – still not sure about the marshmallows though.

  2. I reckon you should do a follow-up post on Marshmallow Profanities. It would catch on.

    Great post. Really enjoyed it, though not terribly fond of sweet potatoes, even without sugary stuff on top. I was very relieved you didn’t corrupt some Maris Pipers.

    1. I could start sneaking profane marshmallows into every post, like an Easter egg. Great idea! 😂

      I would never desecrate a Maris Piper like that! I am very fond of sweet potatoes, so genuinely enjoyed that bit. But the marshmallows were a bit of a step too far for me!

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