The story of a modest plate of fluff, the rambunctious chef who whipped it up, and how they both became an indispensable part of our family
Words by Amelia Carl; Art by Jemma Jose
The door slams shut and my husband waltzes into the kitchen, his arms laden with plastic shopping bags. “I got everything on the list,” Lee says, thumping the white shrouded foodstuffs onto the counter. “And sweet potatoes were on sale, so I got the stuff to make that Sweet Potato Fluff to go with the ham tomorrow.”
“Great.” I smile through clenched teeth.
The next day, as our succulent Sunday ham lounges in the oven like a sorority girl in a tanning bed, I assemble the Sweet Potato Fluff.
Making this dish feels like combining random garbage.
Spongy marshmallows, their fluffy squish a texture that does not exist in nature — so far removed from the springy, healthy porousness of mushrooms or a piece of organ meat — make me grimace as I grab a handful from the bag. The condensed milk is viscous, like something dripping off a movie monster’s jaws as it devours the unfortunate cheerleader. The coconut flakes bring pencil shavings to mind, or, and I shudder to say this, the skin you pick off your feet or the peelings from a sunburn. A cup of sugar and a stick of butter, well, you can’t get mad at those, it’s not their fault they’ve been conscripted into service. But if you’re gonna feel bad for someone in this situation, feel bad for the strong, firm, dense, earthy sweet potatoes, so proud and unknowing, laying there on the counter about to be slathered in all of this crap. Poor potatoes! So natural and knobby like a tomboy’s knees.
At dinner that night, I put on a brave face and smack a spoonful of Sweet Potato Fluff wetly onto my plate. It made the sound of a glob of mud hitting the side of a barn.
I think I am like a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes come from the same humble earth as your typical potato, but somehow they’re just a bit fancier. I come from farm people, but I grew up a town kid. I shoot things and eat them and I can be downright country when I fry things in lard and sing along to my Dolly, but, y’know, Clinique foundation and a Master’s degree. So (stick with me here) if I’m a sweet potato, Sweet Potato Fluff is what I would look like in Uggs, head-to-toe Victoria’s Secret Pink, and a fake tan.
Like many of the problems that plague my mother’s side of the family, I can blame the existence of Sweet Potato Fluff in my life on my cousin Bo.
Now, as good Northern Iowa German Lutheran, I know it is unseemly to speak poorly of a family member. To their face. Since this may somehow become public, names and details have been changed to protect the innocent. My mother didn’t want me to write this at all, so, if you’re reading this, sorry Mom, and happy late or early Mother’s Day.
Bo was a troublemaker growing up. He was always up to something and seemed to be constantly convinced of his own expertise in things that he really knew nothing about. This confidence propelled him to, at the age of ten, take apart the family’s snow blower only to realize he didn’t know how to put it back together again. He was the fight-pickingist, hair-pullingest cousin in the Midwest. He’s hot-headed and cantankerous as all-get-out. As adults, we agree on little — some of his holiday meal table comments about politics and women have put him rather permanently on my shit list.
Imagine a wooden barrel like you’d see in an old movie. Attach two normal-size legs stuffed into tight jeans and cowboy boots to this barrel and stretch a western shirt over it. Add arms and a head topped with weird gingery hair and a cowboy hat and you have Cousin Bo. This dude suffers from a serious case of no-neck-itis. I used to whisper to my brother at the table that Bo’s belt buckle was bigger than his brain.
So if I’m a sweet potato, Bo is most definitely a regular-ass potato. Not even an Idaho Gold or a Klondike Rose, just a russet, the kind you get in a big bag and don’t do much more with than bake. Eat the inside, leave the skin alone so that about 30% of the potato goes in the garbage. I could get into why my brother is a parsnip and my mother is an ear of corn, but we’ll save that for another day.
Anyway, to everyone’s surprise, a few years ago, Bo got married. I couldn’t imagine any woman voluntarily coming within ten feet of him, so imagine my surprise when he brought his new bride to Thanksgiving at my Grandma Martha’s place and she wasn’t a complete hag.
Pretty cute, in fact, though I have to admit the first thing I noticed about her was her honky-tonk badonakdonk, if you get what I’m saying. I’m not a body shamer, so I wasn’t going to judge Melissa on her shape (that would be pot-kettle-black and all of that). However, I felt totally comfortable judging her based on the food she brought to our family table, as well as the incomprehensible fact that she apparently married Bo of her own free will.
I had already turned up my nose at her shrimp “dip” appetizer (I use the term “dip” loosely as it was a plate smeared with a layer of cream cheese, a layer of cocktail sauce, and sprinkled with tiny canned shrimp). Now it was time for dinner, and Melissa’s chance to redeem herself.
As we passed the plates and bowls around, I had a typical Bo interaction. My grandma asked what Lee and I had done that summer, and I was more than ready to gush about our trip to Europe, which included a stint in Venice. “We actually hired a gondola like they do in the movies,” I explained, pouring out the story of our super romantic Venice-by-sunset boat tour.
When my story concluded, Bo put his arm around Melissa’s shoulders. “We went to Vegas in June,” he announced, though nobody had asked. “Rode us a gondola too, at the Venice casino. That’s good enough for us, right hon?”
My husband Lee poked my leg under the table and we shared a secret, snarky glance.
Melissa’s side dish was called Sweet Potato Fluff.
Unimpressed with the chunky brown mess, I slopped a spoonful onto my plate, making sure the gruel-like goop did NOT touch any of my other food. After some turkey, I risked a bite.
The candy sweetness, so powerful that any earthy potato taste was obliterated by a nuclear blast of melted marshmallow, satisfied my base desires for sugar, but the leathery chewiness of the coconut flakes ruined everything. Melissa’s dish was obviously a northern Iowa farm wife melted marshmallow nightmare.
I turned to my husband to shoot him a knowing look that clearly said, “Holy shit, this tastes like hot butter marshmallow garbage, can you believe this woman?” But he was already on his second helping. Soon enough, everyone at the table was raving about Melissa’s Sweet Potato Fluff. I swallowed the gritty goo down my throat, took a huge swig of wine, and added my voice to the chorus of praise. The next thing I knew, Melissa wrote down the recipe for us, did almost all the dishes, and gave me a baby chair her daughters had outgrown.
Just like that, Melissa was in. In the family, and its new patron saint. Everyone loves Melissa. She’s always over at my grandma Martha’s house, changing light bulbs and helping her with the trash, giving me her gently used baby items, and keeping track of my Aunt Norma, Bo’s mom, who sometimes forgets to eat and stuff.
She endeared herself to us in spite of her obvious personality flaw — her ability to love Bo despite the fact that he was… well, Bo. In fact, I’d say she’s as far in as I am out.
I may be blood-related, but I can’t do half the things that Melissa does to help the family. I’ve always lived five hours away from my grandma, and the best I can do is visit once a year and send her cards with pictures of my daughter, scrawling out my messages in huge handwriting so she can read it without her magnifying glass.
Melissa is present for my family up north in a way I can never be. I thank God for her, but I am a little jealous, I’ll admit. I’m not able to be there when help is clearly needed, and the hummus I brought to Thanksgiving only won a few half-hearted nibbles from aunts trying to lose weight.
Now, every family gathering, be it Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas, Melissa sails, grinning, through the door with a big Tupperware bowl full of her Sweet Potato Fluff, which I force down with a smile. My husband likes it so much that he requests it every time we make a big meal like a turkey or a ham.
Hand to God, everyone else in the family tastes something magical in that stuff — that hideous mash that looks like someone ate and then threw up a bird’s nest — that I can’t taste. This is just one of Melissa’s many divine mysteries. Even though she married a potato, that gal is a pineapple. On the outside, she seemed strange, inedible, and impossible to understand, but inside she’s magical and sweet and deserves to wear her crown.
SWEET POTATO FLUFF
Cooked, mashed sweet potatoes, 3 cups
1 small can evaporated milk
1 ½ cup sugar
1 stick butter
1 cup coconut
2 c. Mini marshmallows
Mix together sweet potatoes, milk, sugar, butter. Add coconut and marshmallows. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.