Calling down to Georgia’s State Capitol offices and the Culinary History Society of Georgia, nobody could comment on the gustatorial habits of Richard B. Russell, Jr. (1897 – 1971) the famous politician this dish is named for. But judging from its ingredients, one thing is sure: Richard Russell had a sweet tooth. Depending on the version you source, this sweet potato casserole—a mainstay going back for generations on Southern holiday tables, includes from two to three cups of sugar. That, plus plenty of butter and pecans, makes this more of a dessert than a side dish, in my opinion. But sidedish, or dessert, there’s no denying that the butter-crunchy pecan crust and smooth, whipped sweets beneath taste delicious.
I’m including two versions of the dish. The first, which may be the original, comes from Nicolette Bruner, who got it from her husband’s grandmother, Stella Roberts Russell, one of Senator Russell’s cousins. It has about half the butter, a quarter of the milk and a third of the sugar used in the second version.
The second version comes to us from Victoria Osteen, who, with her husband Joel, pastors Lakewood Church, of Houston, TX, one of the largest congregations in the country. Victoria’s mom’s family comes from Georgia and says the dish goes way back on their traditional holiday menu.
The second version of the recipe is also one of many family favorites featured in Diane Cowen’s popular new book, “Sunday Dinners: Food, Family, and Faith from our Favorite Pastors.” Cowen kindly agreed to do an interview with LRF, about the book. We’re including that, here.
LRF intro: The Houston Chronicle is the largest U.S. newspaper with a stand-alone religion section. It’s also got a James Beard award-winning food section. Diane Cowen is editor of both. As such, Cowen has spent a lot of time analyzing Sunday traditions, including the dinner table where faith, family and food from many cultural backgrounds, intersect. Her book, “Sunday Dinners,” from Andrews McMeel Publishing, gives readers a window in to the Sunday meal traditions of some of the largest churches in America.
LRF: Diane, you’ve said, the more you think about religion and food, “the more I see what they have in common.” Say more about that.
DC: Well, I think there’s just such a sense of community with both. And we can’t forget the family traditions. When I was growing up, Sundays were about going to church in the morning and then having dinner together as a family afterward. Sometimes it was at home with immediate family, but many times it was about traveling to the next county over where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived. There such a sense of community in going to church, whether it’s Sunday school as a child, Bible study as an adult or simply worshipping regularly with people who share your faith. That’s true regardless of where you worship, whether it’s a church, temple, synagogue or mosque.
LRF: Houston is home to three of the nation’s largest churches: non-denominational Lakewood Church; Second Baptist– the country’s largest Southern Baptist church; and Windsor Village–the country’s largest United Methodist. You feature interviews and family recipes from the pastors of each of these churches. As huge and busy as these churches are, were you surprised that the pastor families at the helm still keep the tradition of Sunday dinner alive?
DC: Yes, a little bit, to be honest. Those families have so many demands on their time that I was worried they might not have energy for Sunday dinners. They all talked about how important it had been to them growing up and how they wanted their children and grandchildren to have the same experience. It was really heartening to hear their stories. They’re all at different places in their lives and they’re very different families, but the Sunday dinner thread between them was strong.
LRF: How did you decide which churches and pastors’ families to feature in this book?
DC: I began with making a wish list of people I know and/or admire. In Houston my list could have been very long but I asked four pastors and they all said yes. Then I thought about other Texas cities and immediately wanted the Frazees and Jakes. From there, I wanted some geographic and ethnic diversity so I simply did my homework as any journalist would. I had interviewed Matthew Barnett and Floyd Flake and really admired them so I asked them for interviews. I lived for a long time in South Bend, Ind., so I knew I wanted a Notre Dame priest. From there it was really about trying to get different parts of the country included. I researched dynamic pastors and found videos of their sermons online to gauge how engaging they would be. I was pretty happy with how all of the interviews turned out.
LRF: Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
DC: I have a few, for sure. The recipes I make the most are the pulled pork tacos, whole roasted chicken and strawberry cake. One that I really love, but make less often, is Senator Russell’s Sweet Potato Casserole. It’s rich and fattening and I make it for Thanksgiving and Christmas. When the holidays are over I can’t wait for them to come around again so I can make the dish. One more thing I love about the sweet potatoes is that I’ve made it with Splenda in place of the sugar and it’s just as good. I have a friend with diabetes and he seems to get shut out of all of the good stuff at holidays, so I make a special version of it just for him.
LRF: Can you share a favorite pastor-family Sunday dinner story that came out of the research you did for this book?
DC: There were so many that it’s hard to whittle down to just one. I really enjoyed my interview with Victoria Osteen and her brother, Don Iloff. They are so, so funny together. I also had a great time with the Jakes family; they really have a special bond. I interviewed the Jakes in their Dallas-area home and when I was done my face hurt from laughing so much. On the other side, my interview with the Rev. Martin Nguyen at Notre Dame was completely humbling. This is a man who could have died many times over, who thought he could die in Communist Vietnam every single day for years and yet he had such hope, founded in God and his dream that someday he’d be reunited with his family. The time I spent with him was really incredible.
LRF: What do you hope people will take away from this book that they might not get from the typical cookbook?
DC: I hope that it prompts readers to gather the people they love and cook for them. There’s nothing more fun – to me anyway – than spending several hours in the kitchen and then watching my friends and family devour it and ask for the recipes! My sisters just visited me from Indiana, and I made some new things for me and they each took home three or four new recipes.