Published on 11/14/00

Holiday Favorite Food for Thought

Photo: Wayne McLaurin

As you enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, just think of the way sweet potatoes have changed lives over the globe.
I never ate a sweet potato I didn't like.

Turkey and green beans (my children's favorites), are holiday foods from the Americas. My own Thanksgiving favorite, the sweet potato -- or as some call it, the yam -- is another New World food.

Growing up with the greatest cook in the world, we learned early to eat pretty much everything. In the blending of French, Italian, Creole and Cajun, though, there was always true "Southern cooking," which involved sweet potatoes.

French Fried for Breakfast

Mamma fixed them french fried for breakfast with cinnamon and brown sugar. For other meals, she baked, boiled or candied them with marshmallows, made mouth-watering pies and also sweet-potato chips. We also ate many cold sweet potatoes as a snack after getting in from school.

My favorites, however, were the sweet-potato surprises. They were made from baked sweet potatoes that Mamma mashed with spices and rolled into golf-ball-size pieces. A depression with her thumb into the ball gave the right amount of space to insert one or two miniature marshmallows.

Mamma then reformed the ball, rolled it in fresh-grated coconut and chopped pecans and baked it until the outside was crusty and the marshmallow melted inside.

Sweet Potatoes or Yams?

We called our sweet potatoes yams because the variety we grew was the Puerto Rican type that was moist-fleshed and very sweet. The name "sweet potato" and "yam" have been used interchangeably over the years.

Actually, the African word nyami, referring to the starchy, edible root of the Dioscorea genus of plants, was adopted in its English form, yam.

This plant has a very starchy, nonsweet tuber very unlike the moist-fleshed sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). The National Society of Horticulture Science now refers to our "yam" as sweetpotato -- one word (but dictionaries still list it as two words).

High in Vitamin A

The sweet potato is high in carbohydrates and vitamin A. It has an abundance of uses. We cook the leaves like greens. And besides eating the roots all those wonderful ways, we process them into snacks and candy for people, feed for animals, starch, flour, alcohol and a variety of industrial products.

Sweet potatoes yield very well under a wide range of environmental conditions. They can produce more edible energy per acre per day than wheat, rice or cassava.

Ranking seventh in total production among global food crops, more than 95 percent of the world's sweet potatoes are grown in emerging countries, typically by small-scale farmers and often in marginal areas. In developing countries, it is the fifth most important food crop and is grown more than any other root crop.

A History of Saving Lives

This hardy root crop has a long history of saving lives. The Japanese have repeatedly relied on it after typhoons have devastated rice crops. Sweet potatoes kept millions from starvation in famine-plagued China in the early 1960s. And in Uganda, where a virus ravaged cassava crops in the 1990s, rural communities depended on sweet potatoes to keep hunger at bay.

In the densely populated, semiarid plains of eastern Africa, the sweet potato is called cilera abana, "protector of the children." The sweet potato is now the latest great hope in the war on blindness, too.

In Africa, 3 million children under 5 years old suffer blindness or some form of degenerative eye disease due to a lack of vitamin A in their diet. Scientists have spent the past decade breeding orange-flesh, high-vitamin-A sweet potatoes to suit Africans' taste.

As you enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, just think of the way sweet potatoes have changed lives over the globe.

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.