Published on 01/06/97

Sweet Potatoes or Sweetpotatoes: You Gotta Love 'Em

A sweetpotato by any other name is still a sweet potato.

"When I was growing up in Louisiana," Wayne McLaurin recalls, "if it hadn't been for sweet potatoes and peas, we'd have starved slap to death."

Since that time, McLaurin, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service, has gathered some juicy facts about this food. It isn't related to the Irish potato, by the way. That could be why the National Society of Horticulture Science now refers to it as sweetpotato -- one word, not two.

However you spell it, the sweet potato deserves more respect.

"Nutritionally, the sweet potato ranges as the most nutritious food per unit eaten of anything," McLaurin said. "It has almost everything in it, including estrogen, vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, starches, sugar and minerals, but no protein."

It can be baked or fried. It's great as chips or in casseroles and pies. Sweet potatoes are a great substitute for carrots in carrot cake. The list goes on.

"In the pre-Civil War South," McLaurin said, "people harvested the sweet potato, took the unblemished ones and piled them up, covered them with straw and mud five inches deep and sealed them in.

"The dried mud insulated them, repelled the rain and kept them a good temperature," he said. "When they needed the food, they'd break into the hill and eat them. The sweet potatoes would store all winter as long as the seal was intact."

The sweet potato was a staple in Georgia as recently as the 1920s and '30s, when farmers grew 80,000 acres. A favorite meal for many Southern generations was sweet potatoes, cornbread and salt pork.

"We didn't have as many Irish potatoes that grew well, and sweet potatoes did grow well," McLaurin said. "So they were more plentiful.

"It was a big part of the diet," he said. "Per capita consumption has gone way, way down, but it's making a comeback because of the nutrition."

Researchers are developing other flavor types of sweet potatoes.

"We have five to seven types of apples but only one sweet potato that we work with," McLaurin said. "The flavor is very strong, but we tend to eat things like white bread, Irish potatoes or rice -- bland things -- so we can put something with it.

"We're trying to develop a bland sweet potato with high nutrition," he said, "that might compete with Irish potatoes and grow well in Georgia."

Farmers didn't stop growing sweet potatoes just because people's tastes changed.

"The sweet potato weevil is a real problem," McLaurin said. "We don't really have anything other than two bricks that will kill it. It's one of the two major insect problems worldwide."

UGA horticulturist Stan Kays is working with McLaurin to assess sweet potatoes worldwide to look at flavors.

"We've found everything from stuff that's so sweet to others that are horrible," McLaurin said. "We found buttery flavors and others that taste like turpentine or canned corn."

McLaurin's feels strongly that "sweet potatoes have real potential for increasing human nutrition. They're one of the highest potentials for value, not just an empty carbohydrate."

They also bring out the chef in McLaurin. What's his favorite way to cook sweet potatoes?

"I like them baked," he said. "Or french fry them with fish. Or french fry them and put some cinnamon and brown sugar on them for breakfast. Chips are good with blue cheese dressing.

"My mama would mash them, form them into a ball, poke a hole and put a marshmallow inside, and roll the ball in coconut and chipped pecans."

The sweet potato may be only holiday food for most people, but it has a friend in Wayne McLaurin.

To learn more about growing and cooking sweet potatoes, contact the county extension office.