‘With love and lupus’: A classic Thanksgiving dish, made with a health-conscious twist

Deerfield resident Lori Holmes Clark is an actress, singer, dancer, choreographer, installation artist — and mother of two boys — and she somehow finds time to cook! 

Deerfield resident Lori Holmes Clark is an actress, singer, dancer, choreographer, installation artist — and mother of two boys — and she somehow finds time to cook!  CONTRIBUTED

Lori Holmes Clark’s grandma’s Sweet Potato Casserole. The recipe includes substitutions to make it vegan, gluten free, and refined sugar free.

Lori Holmes Clark’s grandma’s Sweet Potato Casserole. The recipe includes substitutions to make it vegan, gluten free, and refined sugar free. CONTRIBUTED


For the Recorder

Published: 11-21-2023 3:55 PM

“I just love my life,” Lori Holmes Clark of Deerfield told me recently. “It’s like a patchwork of experience. The things that I’m doing are all connected to what I love to do.”

She voiced this enthusiasm just as she was about to enter one of the busiest weeks of her year.

She was getting ready to hold auditions for the musical “Alice by Heart” at Deerfield Academy, where she teaches drama. She will direct and choreograph the show in the months to come. She was also conducting admissions interviews for the school and teaching her regular classes.

She was also preparing to rehearse “A Drag for the Holidays,” a show she and a dear friend co-wrote and will perform at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls on Dec. 1 and 2.

And she was planning for the Clark family Thanksgiving dinner, which will serve 24 in two homes. A big part of her life is her farm family at Clarkdale Fruit Farms. She is working on an art installation to be launched in the orchard in the spring about the history of the farm.

In addition, she has two children, 7- and 10-year-old boys. “I do all the things that mommies do,” she laughed.

Lori admitted that a few years back she found planning for holiday meals difficult. She was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease. For a while she could barely eat anything without feeling awful.

She wanted to get proactive about her condition, and she wanted to avoid taking medication for as long as possible, she said.

Her doctor told her, “I could give you this medicine, or I could give you this book,” she recalled. She chose the latter, “Happy Gut” by Vincent Pedre, a guide to making the body healthier with careful diet.

“I did the diet to see what specific foods hate my personal body,” she said. “The thing it came down to was sugar, like cane sugar, and dairy and gluten. When I don’t have those in my body, my joints don’t hurt. My memory is clearer. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, but I took it as an opportunity to be creative.”

She gradually adapted to her new diet, aided by the cookbook ”Bakerita” by Rachel Conners. She explained that the recipes in that book accommodate her diet but don’t sacrifice flavor or texture.

Over the years she has gradually added a little butter back into her diet, especially at Thanksgiving. She adapted the sweet-potato casserole recipe she gave me to suit her regimen but listed the traditional ingredients as well.

I made it last week. My version couldn’t measure up to Lori’s in appearance.

She told me that she often decorates the top of the casserole with pecans in the shape of a turkey, a feat that was beyond me. It was delicious even so.

It was much richer than my usual Thanksgiving sweet potatoes and had a fluffy texture, almost like a sweet-potato soufflé.

When we finished talking about food, I asked Lori how the heck she — an actress, singer, dancer, choreographer and installation artist — ended up in Deerfield.

She explained that she met her husband, Ben Clark, years ago when both were working at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. “He was running the light board, and I was onstage. And that’s where the showmance began,” she remembered.

They didn’t see each other for a long time as she trod the boards on Broadway for seven years and toured the country in the cast of the musical “Wicked” for another four.

She returned to New York to move into the apartment for which she had been saving for years — and Ben wrote to her to congratulate her on her new home.

She was touched by his thoughtfulness and recalled what a lovely person he was.

“I came and visited the farm, and then we thought, ‘Oh, no! I need to live here!’” she recalled. “He proposed four months later.”

Like many other writers and performers in western Massachusetts, Lori has created a full artistic and personal life for herself here.

“There’s calm space, and you can choose your tempo for the activities that you want to do in a way that you can’t in the city,” she told me. “Being married to a farmer is so amazing. We’ve got all these connections with chefs in the region … We’re fortunate to be stewards of this land.”

Lori’s Grandma’s Sweet Potato Casserole

Lori usually doubles the sweet-potato part of this recipe for holidays; she doesn’t double the topping, which can stretch.

This recipe includes substitutions to make it vegan, gluten free, and refined sugar free. Lori uses eggs and some butter but makes all the other substitutions listed. She doesn’t have a nut allergy so she cherishes the pecans.


for the base:

3 cups cooked and mashed sweet potatoes (Lori bakes her sweet potatoes the day before Thanksgiving; she notes that the skins come off easily after baking. I just boiled them. She stores the skinned sweet potatoes in the refrigerator in a zip-top bag.)

1/2 cup sugar (or coconut sugar)

2 eggs (for a vegan substitute, mix 2 tablespoons flax meal with 5 tablespoons water, and let the mixture gel for 10 minutes before using it)

1/2 cup evaporated milk (or coconut milk. Lori says, “Don’t shake the can. Use the white cream that rises to the top.”)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional: adds depth of flavor)

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) melted butter (or softened coconut oil)

1/2 teaspoon salt

for the topping:

1 cup pecans plus a few more pecans to decorate the top

1 cup brown sugar (or 1/2 cup coconut sugar plus 1/2 cup maple syrup)

1/2 cup flour (or 1/4 cup almond flour)

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) of butter, softened (or softened coconut oil)


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Puree together the sweet potatoes, the sugar, the eggs, the evaporated milk, the vanilla, the almond extract (if you are using it), the melted butter and the salt. I did this using my stand mixer; my sweet potatoes were nice and soft.

Once this mixture is smooth, pour it into a large glass casserole or a couple of pie dishes. (I made a half recipe and used a pretty round ceramic dish made by my potter friend Jeanne.)

Bake for about 45 minutes on a lower shelf (so you can watch it). The top should be baked but not brown. The casserole can still have a little wobble because it will continue cooking after you add the topping and during cooling.

While it is in the oven, prepare the topping. Chop the pecans, and mix them with the brown sugar and flour in a food processor. Incorporate the butter until you have a soft crumble. Use a spatula or your hands to squish the mixture together.

Sprinkle the crumbly topping evenly over the casserole, top with a few pecan halves, and bake until the top of the casserole feels crispy, about another 15 minutes.

Cool the sweet potatoes uncovered. Serves 10 as a side dish.

At Easter, Lori makes this same recipe. She creates a bunny shape with mini marshmallows and puts it on top. Just before serving, she broils the casserole until the marshmallows are a light golden brown.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning cookbook author and singer known as the Diva of Deliciousness. Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.