by Joe Goodell
I do not know how many sweet potatoes are harvested every year in North Carolina. There are reports of the number being greater than that for Mississippi.
So we appreciate that it is in our own Calhoun County where Vardaman, Mississippi is recognized as Sweet Potato Capital of the World. Where in early November the annual Sweet Potato Festival is celebrated with events, competition, and royalty—substantial testimony to the superior quality of our product, creating demand far beyond the borders of our state. It’s like the exceptional watermelons from Smith and Yalobusha Counties. There is a claim in Georgia that Cordele is the Watermelon Capital of the World. But, it is between our two sites every mid-summer at their Watermelon Festival and Carnival, respectively, where that honor is really decided.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the important role of sweet potatoes as a major item in the southern diet. Without modern mechanization they are labor intensive, but not hard to grow, and provide an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and beta carotene. Many a family has staved off the threat of mal-nutrition with servings of sweet potatoes and greens from the home garden.
With turnips and cowpeas, they are known as the great triumvirate. Unlike white potatoes they are complex carbohydrates, the good kind, and like turnips can be preserved in “hills” of earth and compost, or in underground “potato houses.”
For basic fare, they are especially delectable baked in coals of the fireplace, to be slit and buttered. Or consider the onward range of preparation: boiled, fried, or made into bread, pie, chips, noodles, cookies, pancake mix and even sausage, yogurt or fudge. Author Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” relished them “baked into a clobber, or roasted with pork and glazed over with the well browned fat.”
But sweet potatoes they are, and yams they are not. Sweet potatoes enjoy the silt loam soil and climate around Vardaman. That’s where their name is nicked to “taters” and the vast industry is composed largely of devoted family enterprises. The orange, moist-textured Beauregard variety may be known locally as a yam. Or, more broadly, a few varieties of soft sweet potatoes are called yams. But the true yam does not grow well in our country. It requires the hotter tropical climate and long growing seasons of West Africa or India. Yams, white to yellow in color, are flowering plants with underground tubers like sweet potatoes. But their nutritional value is somewhat less, they are commonly much larger and are not at all related. Sweet potatoes are a remote relative of the morning glory, while yams are more of a lily.
Sweet potatoes came to us from a distant past where they were cultivated by the Arawaks and Aztecs who developed them in a variety of textures and colors from white to purple, with yellow and orange most common, all having a distinctive purple flower. Today you can visit “Sweet Potato Sweets” in Vardaman (on, where else, East Sweet Potato Street) for cartons packed with ten, or twenty pounds, every one authentically displaying a veneer of that silty loam. Or select them as preparations exceeding a score of special treats. For the future they were assured a presence when NASA specified them for its Advanced Life Support Program to sustain long term missions.
Venerable cookbooks from southern kitchens have featured sweet potatoes and other foods of Native American or Old world origin such as maize, squash, beans and greens, tomatoes, peppers, okra, fruit, and nuts. One rewards us with a compelling recipe for sweet potato biscuits. From another, with raisins and a pecan and brown sugar topping, the sweet potato casserole which won the Governor’s Cup recipe contest at one of those November Festivals.
From that library I see research opportunities for many a feast which I’m anticipating with hearty appetite.
Many cheers to you and yours!!
Easy Sweet Potato Cobbler
Melt 1 stick margarine in a large 9×13 ovenproof dish.
1 c. self-rising flour
1 c. sugar
1 c. milk
Pour into melted margarine. DO NOT STIR.
2 c. cooked, but firm peeled and sliced sweet potatoes
1 c. sugar
½ c. light brown sugar
1 ½ c. water
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon or whatever spice preferred
Pour this into the melted margarine and batter. DO NOT STIR. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or until light brown.