In my Coal Region home during my childhood, certain dishes were relegated to the holiday table and the holiday table only. One such dish was my mom’s orange candied sweet potatoes. Never at any other time of the year did we have these jewels of the root vegetable world at home. But come Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, they were sure to make an appearance.
Mom was never a fan of sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top. She never used canned sweet potatoes expressing a dislike for their mushy texture she felt did great injustice to the vegetable.
As far back as my memory serves me, I remember accompanying my mom to the local A&P in the neighboring town to get the “store order” for every holiday dinner. Mom would carefully choose sweet potatoes that were close in size so they cooked evenly and chose those on the smaller end of the scale whenever possible.
Mom always boiled the sweet potatoes for this dish in their jackets (skin on). She felt peeling them prior to cooking led to a waterlogged sweet potato which she disliked immensely. To this day I follow her lead and never peel the sweet potatoes prior to cooking when making this dish.
In addition to certain foods for holidays, the meal was always served on very special china that had been in my family for years. The china set was given to my parents as a wedding gift in 1943 and was used at every holiday dinner throughout my lifetime ending only when my parents passed away. The china would be brought out three times a year for dinner then was carefully packed away until the next holiday
As my husband and I were packing for our move from the coal region to New Hampshire and decisions were being made on what to keep and what to part with, I insisted that the dishes had to go with us. I explained to James my connection to them and how they had been a part of every holiday throughout my life. They were already packed up not having been used since my parents passed away several years before. They made the move to New Hampshire where they stayed packed safely in boxes throughout our time there. Once we moved back to Pennsylvania, James said he thought that it would be nice to have a cabinet to display the china since it meant so much to me.
For Christmas that year James surprised me with a dining room set that included a glass front china cabinet perfect for displaying the dishes. As an added bonus, he found some additional pieces that I didn’t have and bought some extra plates in case one got chipped during use. He lovingly set up the dishes, lighted the cabinet and called me in to see my Christmas gift.
It was the first time in my life I had ever seen the dishes on display; they were normally relegated to boxes in the attic. As tears started to flow, I thought of my parents and how pleased they would have been to see them shining and sparkling there on display. I pointed out several pieces, telling James what each one held at every holiday dinner. “This one was for the sweet potatoes”, I said cradling an oval bowl, “There was never anything else served in it. For my entire life, this vegetable bowl was passed around the table heaped high with Mom’s orange glazed sweet potatoes.”
Those dishes are still proudly displayed in my china cabinet. My husband James loved them as much as I do, remarking many times how beautiful they were in their simplicity . Meant to simply hold food, they hold a lifetime of memories for me — love and laughter of days gone by shared with those long gone.
Every holiday since we moved back to Pennsylvania, James would set the table with full place settings from this cherished family heirloom. Although he was not a part of my family’s original celebrations throughout the years, he embraced them through the memories I shared with him. He grew especially attached to the dishes because of that.
This holiday season I will not be using the china. It’s far too bittersweet now having lost my family many years ago and now losing my husband James in January . But I find myself reaching out, grasping, hoping for a bit of “normal” in my life to help get me through the holidays. I think making Mom’s orange candied sweet potatoes may help.
Although they’ll now be served in a simple small Corelle dish, I will take them to the dining room table, turn the lights on in the china cabinet, admire the cherished gift my parents left me, then close my eyes and remember the love, laughter and holiday celebrations shared with so many special people in my life over the years, all tied together by a decades-old set of china and a bowl of candied sweet potatoes.
Orange Candied Sweet PotatoesCourse: Side DishCuisine: GeneralDifficulty: Easy
6 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 1/2 pounds)
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons orange zest
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
- Several hours before use, place sweet potatoes in a large pot, cover with water, bring to boil, then cook until just fork tender. Remove from water, allow to cool completely. Peel, slice into 1/4 inch slices. Set aside.
- Layer sweet potato slices in a 2 quart casserole dish. Combine remaining ingredients in saucepan. Bring to boil, pour syrup over sweet potatoes. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees F in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Serve warm.