Granny’s Sweet Potato Casserole

Here’s an oldie but a goodie, a Rhodes family favorite. And here’s to you, Louise Rhodes — you are missed. And here’s to all the grands who were at the table, scattered now from North Carolina to Tennessee to Texas! Not a Thanksgiving goes by that I don’t remember Louise’s sweet potatoes and Louise slinking under the table because of her Jack Daniels whiskey.

Granny’s Sweet Potato Casserole (published in Pink Butterbeans and also on the Jack Daniels website)

The day was festive—a fresh-cut bouquet of mums and daisies, white tapers, white tablecloth, crisp linen napkins, fine china, and sparkling silver. The air was thick with scents of freshly baked bread, sage, cinnamon, hazelnut coffee, and onion and apple stuffing. People with busy hands scurried about, interacting boisterously, against a backdrop of an oven door creaking, ice cubes clinking against crystal, spoons clanking, and an electric knife purring.

At noon, we all circled the long dining room table, the whole family, gathered to do what all families do on Thanksgiving Day—stuff themselves with turkey and all the trimmin’s. We piled our plates high with slices of roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, green beans with canned French-fried onions on top, and sweet potato casserole. After grace, we dug in.

My younger son must have been building with Legos the day I tried to teach Tact & Manners, for he certainly didn’t exercise either that day. “Mama,” he blurted out, words shot from a cannon, booming through the air, bouncing off the high ceiling, echoing off the white walls, and hovering over the heads of aunts and uncles and siblings and cousins. “Did you put whiskey in the sweet potatoes?”

jack-daniels-black-label-old-no.7-gastroflasche-tennessee-whiskeyI knew full well that Granny brought the sweet potatoes. As I glanced across my glass of sweet tea, I glimpsed Granny shrinking, folding up, like a turtle drawing in its head. Her eyes fell, her head sank, her shoulders slumped, and she inched down until her chin was even with the tabletop, silver hair shining under the chandelier. Her face, barely visible, mirrored her holiday burgundy blouse. Very meekly, Granny defended herself, squeaking out a weak, “Well, the recipe called for it.” There you go. It was written up in a book, so it was okay.

With her admission of guilt, young bodies bolted forward, all the grandchildren at once, those over twenty-one and those under twenty-one, surged for a second helping of Granny’s whiskey sweet potatoes.

Seems that Granny had gone on a trip with the Methodist Church XYZ Club—or Xtra Years of Zest Club—to Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the nation’s oldest registered distillery and Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. Even though there were a few Baptist and Church of Christ folks along, the XYZ-ers toured the distillery. And Granny bought a cookbook, whiskey being the common ingredient in all the fine Southern recipes from cakes to casseroles. Granny couldn’t buy whiskey at the distillery to put in her recipes, for Lynchburg is in a dry county. They only make it, bottle it, and ship it from there. But Granny slipped away from the other XYZ-ers in another county and bought herself a bottle of the Old Time, Old No. 7 Brand Sour Mash, made and mellowed, distilled and bottled in Lynchburg, population 361. “Whiskey made as our fathers made it for 7 generations.”

Granny sat low in her chair the rest of the meal, for she knew she put a generous helpin’ of whiskey in her sweet potato casserole. And although all good cooks know that the alcohol cooks off and only the flavorin’ is left, the grandchildren were not allowed to drive the rest of the day.

In the spirit of tradition, every Thanksgiving, the grandchildren still ask far in advance, “Are we having Granny’s sweet potato casserole?”

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