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Giving thanks for the miraculous sweet potato

Fred Sauceman • Nov 21, 2018 at 10:27 AM

It is safe to say that most Americans have probably not tasted a yam. Despite what some labels may say and what some signs in grocery stores may proclaim, sweet potatoes are not yams. They are different products. If you have tasted a real yam, it was likely imported to the United States from the Caribbean. And you may not have liked it. The yam is starchier and drier than the sweet potato and typically much bigger in size.

As the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission describes them, yams are “rough and scaly and very low in beta carotene.” Sweet potatoes can be white inside, or orange, or even purple. The commission says the confusion came about when the orange-fleshed variety was first introduced to the United States. Says the commission, “In order to distinguish it from the white variety everyone was accustomed to, producers and shippers chose the English form of the African word ‘nyami’ and labeled them ‘yams.’”

The commission adds that the U.S. Department of Agriculture now requires labels with the term “yam” to be accompanied by the term “sweet potato.”

Southern cooking often gets maligned for being unhealthy. But the truth is, the sweet potato, a staple on southern tables for generations, is one of the healthiest foods on the planet. If you eat one medium sweet potato with the skin on, you are getting more than 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of Vitamin A. The writers of the venerable “Joy of Cooking” were well aware of the difference between yams and sweet potatoes, noting that sweet potatoes are loaded with Vitamin A, while yams have “only a trace.”

And it turns out that slapping some butter on a baked sweet potato is not simply an indulgence. “For maximum absorption of Vitamin A,” says the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, “be sure to pair your sweet potato with foods that contain some fat, such as a pat of butter or avocado.”

Sweet potatoes are rich in fiber. They contain potassium. And a medium one registers only about 100 calories when baked in the skin.

Prolific botanist and inventor George Washington Carver once described the sweet potato as “one of the greatest gifts God has ever given us.” He developed 118 different products using the sweet potato. Among them was an after-dinner mint.

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission was chartered 57 years ago, and it now consists of over 400 growers. Their work has helped keep North Carolina at the top of sweet potato-producing states since 1971. Over half the nation’s crop is grown in North Carolina. Sweet potatoes require 150 frost-free days, and the long North Carolina summers accommodate them perfectly. They even adapt to the sandy soils of the eastern part of the state.

North Carolina food writer April McGreger, the daughter and sister of sweet potato farmers, grew up in Vardaman, Mississippi, which calls itself the “Sweet Potato Capital of the United States.” She wrote an entire book about sweet potatoes for the University of North Carolina Press, and in it, she theorizes that the sweet potato could be the oldest cultivated crop in the world and points to Central or South America as its possible places of origin. She writes that sweet potatoes were being grown in the southeastern United States long before white settlement.

“The first known European discovery of sweet potatoes was when Columbus found them growing in Haiti in 1492 and transplanted them back to Spain, thus making them one of the earliest New World foods adopted in Europe,” McGreger adds.

Oftentimes on our Thanksgiving table there is a very simple sweet potato dish we inherited from Trula Mae Bailey of Athens, Tennessee, who was born in 1910 and died in 2002. I’ve written about Trula often. She worked for my aunt and uncle for over 50 years and was more family member than employee. She loved to create recipes and looked to the liquor cabinet for a walk on the wild side with this one.

My aunt was a Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Squire, having been given the “deed” for her square inch of property in Lynchburg by the distillery in April of 1966. When my aunt died in 1995, I inherited that Squire membership and the accompanying speck of land. Trula lovingly added some of Mr. Jack’s famed Tennessee sour mash whiskey to her marshmallow-topped casserole. Her recipes are as valued by the family as any antique or heirloom.

Trula Bailey’s Sweet Potatoes

Two medium to large red sweet potatoes, a little shy of two pounds total

Half a cup of sugar

Two tablespoons butter

Two tablespoons milk

One-fourth cup Jack Daniel’s Sour Mash Whiskey, or a Kentucky bourbon like Maker’s Mark works well, too

Miniature marshmallows

Boil the sweet potatoes in water until they are quite soft. Cool them, remove the skin, and place them in a food processor or mixer. Add the sugar, butter, milk, and whiskey and blend until light and fluffy. Pour into a greased casserole and top generously with marshmallows. Bake in a 350-degree oven until hot and marshmallows begin to melt and to brown.

Fred Sauceman is the author of the book “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”