The Story of the Sweet Potato

It’s that time of the year when sweet potatoes are sprouting from the field in record number and as the saccharine star of our produce section and current monthly owner giveaway, their time in the spotlight is no accident or happenstance. No, in fact, our store is not alone in celebrating this southern staple this season and the history of this candied cousin to the regular potato has cemented its place in many traditions, and for good reason. 

Now that pumpkin season has come to its predestined end, sweet potatoes have taken on the reign as top veggie in our store. When entering the co-op, you’ll find them greeting you in the large bin, locally farm-sourced of course. Just as lovely in hue as the more famous fall orange gourd, sweet potatoes have a rightful hold over this season, though southern bias may skew our appreciation of this humble tuber.

The southern preference for the sweet potato has influenced our giveaway for the month of November as long as I have been the community outreach coordinator, and I’m sure well predates my presence. The popularity of the sweet potato could probably match in size the stores, tables, and bellies of the sweet North Carolinians that have made its presence known better than most southern states. In fact, our gorgeous state of NC is the largest producer of sweet potatoes and aptly so as this lovely veggie has been our state vegetable since 1995.  Though dating back to 1971, we have been the nation’s largest producer of the crop with Sampson, Nash, and Wilson Counties contributing over half of the state supply. 

Though a popular product, the sweet potato has only recently reached its current zenith outside of the south with the growth of inspirational health culture as many seek alternatives to its much starchier cousin, the potato. Though these two veggies share many similarities, the familial relation between them is in name only. This is not the only misattributed family relation to sweet potatoes, especially in the south, many are sold, prepared and served under the popular misnomer of yam.

The misinformation of the sweet potato is due to the many cultures that have come to appreciate its qualities, often second hand, as cultures have grown and come into contact with each other. Though the sweet potato, regular white potato, and yam are the edible parts of their respective plant’s root structure, all three belong to their own distinct families respectively. The story of the sweet potato weaves between the two more significant identities of the other more well-known tubers and you might be surprised to find that its own origins and cultural traditions that surround it are as overlapping as the traditions that lead to the America we now know.

First, let’s examine the regular white potato. A member of the infamous nightshade family it is high in starch and a staple of many European cultures, though its origins lie squarely in the mountain terrace farms of Peru. Sweet potatoes conversely are a part of the stunning morning glory family, while the distant relation across the pond, yams, comes from lilies. 

The potato, or Irish potato, as it was also known, was already a staple of European cuisine thanks to Spanish colonizers who had brought it back from Peru. Through a linguistic tradition of mispronunciation, the Spanish are believed to have combined two separate indigenous languages,  batata of the Taino people, and the indigenous Peruvian’s  Quechua word for the crop, papa. It wasn’t until an English colonizer received the crop that the prefix of “sweet” was added to distinguish the two similar crops and highlight the high sugar content of the sweeter potato introduced to them by indigenous communities that would use their harvest to keep the early colonizers alive. 

We know from firsthand accounts, like those of evenly more misnamed individuals like the “discoverer” Columbus that indigenous peoples were already harvesting the sweet potatoes here on Turtle Island, long before he accidentally arrived.  The villain that we now know Columbus to be, more than likely encountered it twice, once when he landed in Florida, but probably once before that when he was saved by the Tainos of the Caribbean. In fact, the oldest wild ancestor of the crop, ipomea trifalda, is native to the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America. 

Many botanists and scientists believe the plant would have evolved at its earliest somewhere around Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Venezuela, however new studies might suggest an alternative origin story. Currently, botanists in India have studied thousands of Morning Glory fossils that may suggest their own claim to the tubers not so specific origins, only adding to the international cultural significance.

The third possible origin of the sweet potato is caught up in the tides and currents of the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to another blowhard of the age of exploration, Captain Cook, we have specimens from his travels through the Pacific Islands, as he did his own rendition of colonization. 

From these specimens we know that sweet potatoes could be found on several islands, predating origins of sweet potatoes found by Columbus, as these specimens would place their growth of this crop in Polynesia 700 years before Columbus’ travels.  Though unpopular theories suggest birds, wind, or wave carried seeds or substantial parts of the potato to the many islands, a simpler explanation would be the advanced wayfaring sailors of the Pacific knew and depended on the sweet potatoes many nutritious benefits that would have only aided them on their long journeys across the largest body of water on the planet.

High in nutrients like vitamin c, manganese, and fiber, as well as a good source of sugars, it’s clear why sweet potatoes made for an advantageous crop for sailors and a staple crop for indigenous peoples, with such an ideal nutritional profile. In fact, studies have shown sweet potato is both ideal for gut health, can improve vision, and help with the uptake and production of sugars. Also, most of this is true for our four-legged fetching friends as well, as it is a popular additive in many pet foods.

These benefits give reason to why sweet potatoes have long been a popular southern crop, and a long-term part of most southern holiday meals. African American communities, whose ancestors were held in bondage to work the many agricultural endeavors of the early American colonies, probably gave the sweet potato its most common misnomer, “yam”. Many of its qualities probably reminded enslaved Africans of their culture’s most precious staple crop that they would not have had access to in the plantations of the American south. For many African cultures that would have cultivated yams, the sweet potato would have provided a familiar alternative to both the plant‘s nutrition and traditions they had been disconnected from. 

In fact, sweet potatoes, or candied yams as they are often served, are not the only remnant of the African diaspora found in southern cooking. The plate of collards, rice, and cornbread as well as the traditions of spices and frying many foods all would have been a part of this same thread of traditions that have given the sweet potato her place in many southern cookbooks and dining tables.

Though you may not be cooking yams or you may enjoy French fries more that sweet potato fries, this orange, purple, white, and red tinted spud is a lovely addition to any meal and has many benefits not to scoff at. In fact, its presence throughout the world and its natural benefits is why the World Health Organization suggest its consumption as a part of 5 a day diet.

So if you venture to the Co-op for your free sweet potatoes for owners or are looking for a more colorful, if not healthier, alternative for your holiday plate, or are just hoping to purchase the many sweet potato pies, beers, or varieties we carry, you will be happy to know that American traditions don’t need to be manufactured, in fact they can be found right in the ground and are as sweet as the foods we have come to know and love.