A Yam By Any Other Name

Thanksgiving is nigh. Along with giving thanks for life, love and liberty, Americans give thanks for the traditional holiday meal of fowl and dressing—that might be turkey or chicken or stuffing to some, or baked ham—and all the fixings.

Another mainstay for Thanksgiving dinner is the sweet potato. Ever wonder why sweet potatoes are sweet? Why they're known sometimes as yams?

"Food Lover's Companion" explains that the sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family and native to tropical parts of the Americas. Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" agrees, calling the sweet potato a storage root and specifying that they are native to South America. He points out that Columbus took the sweet potato to Europe and from there it ended up in China and the Philippines. "China now produces and consumes far more sweet potatoes than the Americas, enough to make it the second most important vegetable worldwide," McGee reports.

Both books assert that we're in error when we call sweet potatoes—those beauties whose flesh is orange from beta-carotene—yams. They're not even related. McGee traces the error back to 1930s marketing campaigns. The "Oxford Companion to Food" states that the habit of calling sweet potatoes yams probably originated with the slave traders introducing the vegetable to Africa where it was called igname or nyam, going on to trace the word from its African origins to the English yam.

The "Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink" states: "Today some of the most popular market varieties include 'Centennial,' 'Goldrush,' 'Georgia Red,' … The sweet potato has long been associated with Southern and soul cooking."

We Southerners happily call them candied yams or candied sweet potatoes as long as they're orange, sweet and moist, once they're baked with marshmallows, orange juice or brown sugar.

Truth be told, sweet potatoes are sweet in and of themselves. McGee says most types "sweeten during cooking thanks to the action of an enzyme that attacks starch and breaks it down to maltose, a sugar made up of two glucose molecules that's about a third as sweet as table sugar." The maltose starts to develop at 135 degrees Fahrenheit and stops at around 170 degrees, so it's best to bake sweet potatoes slowly. Using the microwave, steaming or boiling them doesn't give the process enough time, so they don't turn out as sweet.

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce reports that Mississippi ranks third in the number of acres planted, among sweet potato producing states. The vegetable boasts the highest dollar return per acre of any vegetable grown in the state. Mississippi's most popular sweet potato is Beauregard, followed by Hernandez and Nancy Hall.

In November, the last month of the sweet potato harvest in the state, Vardaman, Sweet Potato Capital of the World, hosts the National Sweet Potato Festival. The 32nd annual event started on Nov. 5 with the Arts and Crafts Festival and ends on Nov. 12 with judging of the Original Sweet Potato Recipe Contest and the Sweet Potato Festival Banquet. In between there are Sweet Potato Queen Contests for different age groups as well as other sweet potato-related events.

While that sounds like a great time, my main interest in sweet potatoes in eating them. To that end, I stopped on the corner of Bailey Avenue and Monument the other day to buy a peck of Louisiana sweet potatoes for $3 from a man whose pickup truck bed was filled with them. Still covered in dirt, the small sweet potatoes felt firm to the touch.

Knowing I had no way to keep them until Thanksgiving, I washed all of them, let them dry, rubbed them with olive oil and popped them into a hot oven set at 300 to bake slowly. Since we had so many, we shared them with our neighbors.

While not a lavish dish, they made a great dessert with a pat of butter.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment