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Food in the 'Hood

Candy from the Field*: The Sweet Potato – Part II

* These words are the English translation of the Cajun expression, “bon bon du close.” Part I recounted the early history of the sweet potato, native to Peru, which was found far from its origins by Columbus in the West Indies.

The “Spanish potato,” as the sweet potato came to be dubbed, reached Northern Europe by 1600 at the latest. It preceded the white potato, later known as the “Irish potato,” by at least 50 years. Initially shunned by the Spanish, who only took it home several decades after finding it, the white vegetable carried negative baggage. This member of the nightshade family was reputed to be poisonous and to carry disease.

The batata (the Spanish name which only gradually became potato) was feasted on by the royalty and aristocracy at festive banquets. Sweet potato puddings and pies were typical fare at these galas. Recipes instructed the well-born in the arts of making these treats. Richard Bradley, Cambridge University’s first professor of botany, presented a recipe for a sweet potato pudding flavored with candied orange and lemon peel.

Its reputation as an aphrodisiac made the vegetable even more fashionable. William Harrison, a 16th century English writer, spoke of the “venerous roots” brought from “Spane” and “Portingale.” In Shakespeare’s time, when vendors sold candied slices of sweet potato at London’s Royal Exchange, the dramatist played on the root’s erotic magnetism. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff, anticipating an amorous conquest, cries out: “Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves,’ hail kissing confits . . . .”

The passage of the sweet potato continued to twist and turn, reaching China in the 16th century. Far from its birthplace in the New World, the fanshu, or “barbarian potato,” was in the beginning warily accepted and then over time its popularity mushroomed. China’s production burgeoned and it now supplies 90 percent of the world’s sweet potatoes.

Spanish galleons plying the route from the port of Acapulco in Mexico to Manila, the empire’s capital in the Philippines, carried seed stock for planting. The Filipinos took to the new crop, which they called by its Spanish name, camote.

Luzon, the country’s largest island, the scholar I.H. Burkill observed, was “thickly settled with Fukianese,” immigrants from Fukien, a southern coastal province of China. When famine devastated Fukien after a typhoon struck the region in 1593, China sent a mission to the Philippines to search for plants that might rescue the hungry. The officials met with a group of settlers from Fukien, who recommended sweet potatoes as the answer. Some of them volunteered to bring plants back to China.

The job was fraught with danger because the Spaniards outlawed the export of vital foodstuffs from their colony. The Fukiense plotted to deceive them. They disguised the roots as ship cables by wrapping cordage around them and shipped out for Fukien with the supplies. The returning Chinese taught local farmers how to cultivate the unfamiliar crop.

The Chinese hailed the “golden tuber,” which ended the famine. But savior though it might be, the people only slowly cultivated the sweet potato. Two hundred years later, the imperial government was forced to order citizens to plant the crop to protect against famine.

By the end of the 18th century, the sweet potato was spreading around the country. The prolific and hardy root, which thrived even in rocky and sandy soil, was also drought resistant. A boon to the peasant farmer, the root sprang up quickly and yielded four times as much as rice. Its roots, stems, and leaves were also good fodder for livestock.

In North America the sweet potato found its most fertile ground in the South, where warm weather fostered abundant harvests. Spanish explorer Frances De Leon discovered Indians in Louisiana growing the root in 1540. A hundred years later, English settlers, who possibly received the plants from the West Indies, were cultivating sweet potatoes in Virginia. Masters fed sweet potatoes to their slaves, who harvested them in their gardens and roasted them in the ashes of their cooking fires. The slaves called the roots yams, the large tubers that were the mainstays of their diet in Africa.

In their homelands, the yam, an essential source of energy, was often considered sacred. Our English name for the root derives from several similar words in West African languages meaning “to eat.”  When captains provisioned their slave ships, they stocked them with yams and other popular foods like plantains, peanuts, and palm oil.

When the slaves arrived in the Americas, they found few yams but plenty of sweet potatoes. The sweet root replaced the African tuber as a starchy food for the captives. Out of habit, they called the roots yams even though those rough, scaly vegetables were drier and starchier than sweet potatoes. The name stuck, nonetheless.

African-Americans in the South developed a diverse repertoire of sweet potato dishes. Pies, biscuits, breads, and pone — a treat halfway between pudding and bread — diffused from the black community into the larger population.

The vegetable’s most fervent advocate was the scientist George Washington Carver of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. He promoted sweet potatoes as a nutritious, high-yielding crop that could replenish the soil ravaged by King Cotton. In testimony before Congress, Carver said that the sweet potato and the peanut, another beneficent plant, were “twin brothers,” “two of the greatest products God has given us.”

Agriculturalists in the United States lavished their attention on the orange-fleshed sweet potato rather than other varieties. This was the kind farmers and scientists at university research stations bred and improved. In the 1930s, Louisiana growers began marketing their state’s sweet root, one like the potato grown in Georgia and the Carolinas, as the “Louisiana yam.”

Appealing to regional pride, they tried to capitalize on its traditional name, however incorrect that might be. The Louisiana sweet potato, its promoters were saying, was superior to the paler, drier variety grown further north.

Fine distinctions between yams and sweet potatoes matter little to many Americans, especially those with Southern roots. At Oohs and Aahs, a Washington DC eatery that dishes out fried chicken, greens, peach cobbler and other Southern foods, there is no menu item called sweet potatoes. It is simply “candied yams.” Even my local Safeway in the District bows to city’s Southern traditions. The label on the bin of sweet potatoes proclaims them to be yams.

Succulent Sweets

Jamdown Jamaican Restaurant (3303 Georgia Ave., NW; tel., 450-2408. One of the few eateries to carry a sweet potato cake, which is notable for not being too sweet and for being delightfully moist.

Oohs and Ahs (1005 U St.), NW; tel., 667-7142. This soul food restaurant serves up nice “candied yams.”

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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