Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: William Gillette’s Southern Sweet Potatoes

Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from an actor who only made one movie but still changed to course of entertainment history.

This recipe is not from the Photoplay cookbook but rather from a 1916 book designed to raise funds for the Actor’s Fund and the Red Cross. 1916 was an important year for Gillette as it was when he signed on with Essanay and made the screen version of his iconic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

This film proved to be his only screen appearance it was thought lost for nearly a century before surfacing in France. It has since been restored and released (you can read my review here) to much joy and acclaim from movie nerds and Sherlock Holmes fans alike. And since it is being released on DVD/Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in a few days, this seemed like a fabulous opportunity to do something a little offbeat in celebration.

We know that Gillette can write and that he can act. But can he cook? That is the question we will be considering today as we try his recipe for Southern Sweet Potatoes.

Sherlock Holmes 1916 still (5)

On color

As you will see in my recipe photos, I did not use orange flesh sweet potatoes. The variety I prefer is yellowish-white and is considerably less sweet than the more familiar orange color. (For what it’s worth, I am the only person in my family who feels this way. Everyone else likes the syrupy orange ones.) The white sweet potatoes have a more subtle flavor and the Asian varieties have these wonderful floral notes. If you are at an Asian grocer and see these potatoes for sale, be sure to buy them. Yum!

All the grocery stores in my area (Central/Southern California) mark the white variety as sweet potatoes and the orange variety as yams. This is incorrect as yams are not even in the same family but it is a common regional thing in many, many parts of the United States and I happen to live in one of them. This further adds to the confusion regarding the proper shade of a sweet potato. As you can see in my informal poll, most people consider orange to be the right color:

(In case you have trouble viewing the results, it’s currently 100% for orange.)

As I said, I strongly prefer the white variety but they’re darn healthy so enjoy whichever color you like best. (And, obviously, the healthy label goes away if you glop marshmallows all over them.)

The Recipe


William Gillette has opted for jazzing up his sweet potatoes with butter, sugar and cinnamon before baking them.

Here’s the thing: I don’t even like butter on my sweet potatoes. I roast them and then eat them as a handy portable snack so putting sugar, butter and cinnamon on them is really, really strange to me. And don’t even get me started about the marshmallow thing. (You people are sick!) I should mention, though, that a Korean sweet potato latte is amazing and I am beyond depressed that I can’t get one here.

I opted to use my beloved white sweet potatoes for the recipe because I am the one who has the eat this thing.

I started by layering them in a pan. I lined it with foil ahead of time because these things can make cleanup a pain. My pan was relatively shallow so I ended up with three layers of potatoes, which I had cut lengthwise into 1/3″ planks. I used butter softened  at room temperature for easy spreading and to assure even coverage.

My favored sweet potato.
My favored sweet potato.
Some soft butter, sugar and cinnamon...
Some soft butter, sugar and cinnamon…
And even more butter, sugar and cinnamon. I feel slightly dirty.
And even more butter, sugar and cinnamon. I feel slightly dirty.

Mr. Gillette was an acclaimed playwright and actor but good lord was he ever a bad recipe writer. 30 minutes on low? I baked these suckers for 90 minutes at 350 degrees before they softened! And I didn’t even have deep layers; I used a 9-inch round pan. Bad form, Mr. Gillette, bad form. Good thing I was making these things in the middle of the day and wasn’t holding up dinner for them. I would recommend steaming the potatoes ahead of time if you are on a tight schedule.

Steaming hot. Finally.
Steaming hot. Finally.
Very little carmelization. Boo!
Very little carmelization. Boo!
A closer look.
A closer look.

Time for the moment of truth!

Taste test video:

My Score: 3 out of 5. This recipe doesn’t go overboard on flavorings, which is a plus, but there doesn’t seem to be much point to it. I could have saved myself a lot of time a trouble by simply roasting the sweet potatoes, buttering them at the table and offering cinnamon and sugar.

The reason why I gave it an extra star is that my tasters and I did indeed finish the pan. We all agreed it wasn’t very exciting but we ate our portions and then took more. So while this recipe is not my cup of tea, it’s pretty tasty. It’s not a thing of beauty and I probably won’t make it again but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.


  1. JazzGirl

    Fritzi–I am an ex-professional baker, and I think that the cooking-temperature issue might be due to the age of the recipe. Many early cookbooks, before the age of well-regulated modern ovens, simply guessed at cooking temperatures, or instructed cooks to bake until the product reached a certain appearance (ie, golden brown). And, I’m sure that many of our blogophiles of a certain age can recall their grandmothers peering into the oven and announcing “it has that DONE look, so let’s take it out.”! And, so I am suspecting that Mr. Gillette may have been that sort of old-school cook; today, he doubtlessly would have specified 350-400 F in order to get the job done.

    But, thank you for doing tthis–what a fun way to connect with our silents stars, and the world they lived in!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I would say that it is far more likely that Gillette was going from memory on the recipe and guesstimated the cooking time. I have found that older recipes are actually pretty easy to follow on oven temps (“moderate” is usually in the ballpark of 350 degrees, for example) and all I can say is that his oven must have been a blast furnace if he thought low heat would cook layers (plural) of sweet potatoes in just 30 minutes. It is also possible that he left out a step (parboiling the potatoes, for example) in a recipe that he only saw prepared from a distance. I am quite experienced with older recipes (I have cooked and baked with them for decades) and know miscalculated cooking time when I see it.

  2. jazzfeathers

    I don’t think I’ll try it, sorry.
    I like my sweet potatoes the way they are. Rarely cook them with anythign else. I just take the skin off and sink my teeth in 🙂

    And they are white. Here in Italy, we only get white sweet potatoes. Didn’t even know there are orange sweet potatoes.

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