Three things made this spindly root of the morning glory family a New World treasure: sugary flavor, the gluttony it inspired in livestock, and its productivity in the field. Native to the American tropics, it came into cultivation approximately 5,000 years ago in Central America, and its culture spread through the West Indies and the lands rimming the Caribbean. Its wild ancestor grew in northern South America, but has all but disappeared supplanted by its domesticated offspring. (The “wild sweet potato” or “man of the woods” found in the American Midwest is a botanical cousin, not part of the direct lineage of the cultivated vegetable.)
While the culinary charm of the sweet potato inspired cultivators to grow it, its excellence as animal feed moved it from the garden to the field. John Lowell, one of the smartest agricultural experimenters in New England, counseled in 1823 that northern farmers take the plant up, regardless of its tropical origin. “It is preferred by all animals of whatever description. Cows and pigs eat it greedily, and even dunghill fowls will attack and consumer it in a raw state.” Animals savored every part of the plant, leaves, stems, and roots. Producing 300 bushels of roots an acre, it proved more prolific than any other root vegetable grown for feed—mangel wurtzel, turnips, or potatoes. It averaged three times more nutrition per acre than corn. For this reason, it forms the foundation of 21st century Chinese feed agriculture.
Though about 70% of the root is water, the dry matter is nearly all carbohydrate. While the amounts of sugars, carotenoids, and amino acids differ among sweet potato varieties, the average values of dry matter are 70% starch, 10% sugar, 5% protein, 10% fiber, and 1 to 2 % lipid. The starches undergo ready enzymic transformation into sugars; chopping the potatoes is enough to trigger the transformation, but cooking greatly aids the sweetening. When Jennifer Wolfe sampled various samples grown around the world, she found a variety from Louisiana boasting 38.3% sugar.
When Europeans first encountered the root in the 16th century, the starchiness of the sweet potato, as well as the Peruvian potato (what was later called the ‘Irish Potato’), greatly pleased its consumers. Their penchant for porridges, bread, and pasta led them to abandon the traditional European‘bread root,’ the asphodel, and consume the imports instead. Their hunger for starch caused experimenters to process the roots into “farinaceous matter’—sweet potato flour and sweet potato starch. These eventually would find their way into jellies, puddings, and quick breads.
Today a dozen varieties jostle for market dominance. Foremost in acreage and sales is the smooth-skinned orange Centennial. Three traditional varieties, all of which boast extraordinary sweetness, have maintained popularity over decades: the yellow fleshed mealy Nancy Hall favored by gardeners and bakers, the gold skinned, creamy white-fleshed Jersey, and the meaty reddish Puerto Rico. Southern Universities and agricultural stations have recently contributed numbers of new cultivars noteworthy for yield and resistance to insect pests: the Beauregard, the Carolina Bunch, the Covington, the Darby, the Jewel, the Regal, the Sumor, and the Vardaman. But the modern varieties are refractions of several ancestral types bred true in the early nineteenth century. These parent potatoes were designated at first by color names and geographical designations. In the north, the species tended to be called “Carolina Potato” in the first decades of the century, and then specified in terms of color: “the white are the earliest, and the best for our climate; then the yellow, and the red.” There was in addition to this color differentiation a vernacular division of roots into sweet potatoes and yams, with spindly orange-fleshed roots being designated by the latter name. Dr. McChesney, a New Jersey planter with experience in the Leeward Islands in the West Indies observed in 1831, “I could find but little difference between their yams and sweet potatoes.” His remark was probably just, for there may have been no botanical difference. In the New World the name yam came to be applied in to both the West African perennial herbaceous vine (Dioscorea) and to Ipomoea batatas, because the African Discorea cayenensis bore superficial resemblance to certain dark brown or yellow/orange skinned sweet potatoes.
The confusion of yams and sweet potatoes dates from European contact, when Columbus encountered sweet potatoes for the first time and conceived them to be a variety of yam—the edible West African tubers of the Dioscorea family had been well known to Europeans since the Portuguese voyages along the continent’s west coast in the 1460s and ‘70s. He brought examples to Europe from the second voyage. Yet African yams never established a substantial presence on the North American mainland. Sweet potatoes called yams did. When enslaved Africans encountered sweet potatoes in the West Indies, they processed them as they did the yams that they brought with them over the Atlantic. They did not eat them raw, as livestock were wont to do. They shredded, pounded, leached, boiled, roasted or fried them—the cooking processes designed to counteract the toxicity of the raw African yam. Though baking was not a West African culinary technique, contact with Europeans and their bread fixations taught West Indian slaves to bake the sweet potatoes into breads, pones, and pies.
Rev. Griffith Hughes Natural History of Barbados (1750) offers an early glimpse of the potato and its uses:
“These very useful Roots are distinguished in this Island from another into at least thirteen Sorts; but as this great Variety hath but very small real Difference, I shall therefore pass by these and less necessary Distinctions, and divide them into the white and red, the long and the round Sort. Each of these differs from the English Potato, by being propagated by a Slip or Vine, which they produce instead of upright Stalks. Another remarkable Difference is, that the West-India Potatoes have all a sweetish Taste; they are here look’d upon so beneficial, that there is scarce an Estate, where there is not a considerable Quantity of Land planted with them; for these with Yams and Plantain serve instead of Bread to most of the middling, and almost intirely to the poorer Sort; tho’ they are not quite destitute of a king of Bread, made with these Roots: For the Potatoes being first grated, and the Juice pressed out, the flowery or mealy Part is mix’d with Sugar and Spice, and made into Paste, which being baked in the Over, in the Form of a Plum-cake, its Taste is far from being disagreeable; this they call Pone. With the express’d Liquor of either the red or the white Potato is made what we here call Moby, or a Sort of cool Drink, answering to small Beer in England. The Method of making this, is to mix the raw express’d Juice of the Potatoes with a certain Quantity of Water; this in a seasoned Vessel will soon ferment, and in about four and twenty Hours be ready for Use; it tastes cool and sharp, and it is generally esteem’d a healthy Liquor. The Juice likewise of Potatoes, if fermented, will, by Distillation, yield good Spirit. The Vine producing each Sort is long, and trailing close to the Earth, taking Roots with its numerous Joints in wet Weather; these burrowing into the Ground bear a great Number of Potatoes: Tho’ the Leaves upon these different Vines vary somewhat in Shape, yet in general they are all scollop’d, and bear bell-fashion’d monopetalous Flowers, whitish without, and of a deep Purple within, each Flower being slightly segmented about the Edges. These are succeeded by small capsular Seed vessels, inclosing several blackish small Seeds.” [p. 228]
During the 19th century distinctly regional approaches to the sweet potato emerged. In the east the plant grew vigorously as far north as middle New Jersey, so most of the vegetables consumed in New England had to be carted in from regions more southerly. Because of a penchant for boiling the roots in their preparation for the table, northerners favored “dry” roots with a starchy quality: The Nansemond potato (developed in Virginia and named after region of the eastern shore) served this taste and longed reigned as the favorite boiling potato of Yankee cooks. Southern cooks preferred baking their sweet potatoes and sought roots with moister flesh that would become fork tender after roasting in the fire or worked in an oven. The Southern Queen potato, a shorter, rounder tuber than the Nansemond, became the tuber of choice, followed by a variety of yellow-fleshed ‘yams.” The Southern Queen’s qualities shone most brightly when double baked-put in the oven with skins on until soft, then removed, peeled, and baked another half an hour. “This way of baking twice, makes them more candied.” During the mid-1880s, when southern women became conservators of regional memory, cookbooks began to appear tracing state and local traditions. Mary Stuart Smith in her Virginia Cookery Book surveyed the baking and boiling schools of preparation and asserted the local preference.
1. J. Lowell, “The Carolina Potato, or Sweet Potato,” New England Farmer 1, 47 (June 21, 1823), p. 372.
2. Jennifer A. Woolfe, Sweet Potato (Cambridge, & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 42.
3. H.G. S., “Han. 29, 1831: For the Gennese Farmer,” Gennese Farmer 1, 6 (February 13, 1831.
4. “Sweet Potatoes,” Gennese Farmer 1, 14 (April 9, 1831), p. 109.
5. Also known as the “Jersey Potato” when grown in New Jersey.
6. Also widely known as the “Haymon Sweet Potato.”
7. Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979 facsimile of the 1847 edition), p. 96.
Arkansas Beauty History
This is a long tapering, potato, very smooth and yellowish in color. The roots, which are very uniform in size, are borne in clusters. The skin is pronounced yellow, while the flesh is light yellow and very delicate looking. The vine growth-is good but it is a poor yielder.
Big Stem Jersey History
(Nansemond)-- This potato is distinguished by being the most widely cultivated of all varieties for the northern markets. Growers on the eastern shore have long grown this and its near relative, the Little Stem Jersey. The Virginia Truck Experiment Station at Norfolk has given the following official description of the variety: "Vines long, heavy, leaves large; potatoes long, spindle shaped, irregular, often veiny, many very large. Skin bright yellow, flesh creamy to pinkish. Table quality fair, dry. A fairly heavy yielder, especially for early crop. Not adapted to hamper pack. There are pink-fleshed strains especially good for canning, since the flesh of the potato is of a very attractive color for this purpose. The table quality of these strains is also superior." The vines are long, slender and creeping. The leaves are small, green on both sides and entire. ,The potatoes are late in season to mature. This variety is a heavy yielder and can be grown farther North with better success than the moist-fleshed varieties.
Black Spanish History
This variety has a purplish red skin and the whitest flesh of any potato. It is very dry but really sweeter than the dry yellow varieties. The vines are very long, vigorous and dark purple in color. The potatoes are long, cylindrical - and crooked. The quality is poor, the variety being grown mostly for stock-food.
The roots of the Brazilian are large, smooth, roundish and uniform in shape. The skin is light yellow; the flesh white. It is a hardy variety and very prolific, with a luxriant vine growth.
Dooley Yam History
One of the best yielders and keepers among the long list of strictly southern grown sweets is the Dooley. This is an old variety and is well known and extensively produced in all of the southern states. The vines are slender but very long, often attaining a length of 15 feet or more. They are dark green and the leaves are entire, with three to five tiny marginal points according to the age of the leaf.
This is one of the dry mealy types originating from the original Nansemond, or Jersey Sweet, of Maryland and Virginia.
Fullerton Yellow Yam History
The potatoes are very long in proportion to their diameter. They are borne in clusters and are very prolific. The skin is light yellow; the flesh white spotted with yellow, and sweet and sugary in nature.
Gold Skin History
This variety belongs to the Nansemond class together with the Yellow and Red Nansemond, the Delaware, Big and Small Stem Jersey and the Red Nose. The name "Gold Skin" seems to be more of a trade name for "Jersey Sweets" rather than a term designating a distinct variety with outstanding varietal characteristics. Gold Skins are sold extensively on the northern markets. They have the mealy flesh characteristic of the Nansemond potatoes.
Georgia Yam History
This variety is extensively grown for home use throughout the South Atlantic and Gulf states and is known under several local names, such as the Georgia Buck, Split-Leaf and East Texas Yam. The vines grow long and slender; the stems are light green in color; the leaves are the same color and seven-parted, being very deeply cut. "Stem branching, bushy, rather slender, portion below surface of ground is white to pinkish, and that above surface is pinkish to green. Leaf is deeply divided, prominent shoulders; margin entire; color medium green upper surface, grayish green lower surface; veins heavy, light green; petioles thick, moderate length, light brownish color." This variety is a good yielder and is adapted to growing for home use and for markets demanding a sweet, very moist potato.
Hayman (Southern Queen) History
The Hayman and Southern Queen are identical, having whitish skin and creamy flesh. The Hayman has long been well known in that section but years ago it was taken up by B. K. Bliss, then a leading seedman in New York City, and sent out as a new potato under the name of Southern Queen. It is now known in many sections by the latter name. It is very early, unusually productive and is considered one of the earliest varieties to keep in storage. It is much improved in eating quality by storage and though not a very choice eating potato in fall and early winter, it becomes very good indeed in late winter and spring. It is of a very light color outside, presenting a grayish-white rather than yellow appearance. The flesh is pale yellow. The vine growth is heavy. The tubers are inclined to become over-large in rich soil, unless early digging is practiced.
Jewel Yam History
This is a yellow potato very like the dry Nansemond but with the sweet soft flesh of the yams. It was formerly grown to a limited extent through the Carolinas. It is a heavy yielder with prominent veins and is almost identical in appearance and quality with the Yellow Barbadoes.
Little Stem Jersey History
The Little and Big Stem Jerseys are extensively grown for the northern markets by all farmers in the eastern shore sweet potato district, where the Eastern Shore of Virginia ProduceExchange has done much to standardize the production. Bulletin 19 of the Virginia Truck Experiment Station gives the following description of the variety: "Vines long, slender, leaves small; potatoes uniformly medium sized, regular, rounded to spindle shaped; bright yellow skin, creamy flesh,I a moderate/ yielder; table quality good, dry. This variety is especially adapted for shipping in the hamper pack to northern markets." The vine growth is similar to that of the Big Stem Jersey except that it is more slender. The potatoes are smaller, more uniform, smoother and less veiny than the Big Stem Jersey..1
Meyers Early History
This is a sweet, rich, yellowfleshed sort resembling in character and quality the Nancy Hall. It is a selected strain of the Nancy Hall and is almost identical with it. It is known throughout Georgia, but is not widely distributed in other states. The vines have short nodes rather close together, and with medium to small "entire" leaves. The Meyers Early is said to grow a little longer than the Nancy Hall and the veins on the roots are more pronounced. In fact, the description of a well-grown Nancy Hall potato will fit the Meyers Early very well.
Nancy Hall History
This is the most popular of all the yellow "yam" varieties. When cooked, the flesh resembles closely that of the Pumpkin yam of Georgia and the Norton yam of North Carolina. It does not resemble these before cooking, however. This variety naturally grows short and chunky and the skin is pale yellow with stray streaks of pale pink. The flesh is deep pumpkin yellow when cooked. The Nancy Hall, under field conditions, is outstanding in producing a greater amount of No. 1 bakers with fewer jumbos and culls. The potatoes are of good shape, rather prolific and are very early maturers. The vine growth is luxuriant. The vines are medium long (3 to 5 feet) and green except for a purple stain at the junction of the blade and petioles. The leaves are entire. (See Plate IV.)
Nansemond (Jersey Sweet) History
The original Nansemond, or the old yellow sweet potato of Maryland and Virginia, is a dry yellow potato popular in the northern markets. This potato, renamed in New Jersey, has given rise to the Delaware and the Eed Nose varieties and to the various other strains of the Jersey potatoes.
Old Fashioned Yellow Yam History
Stem is medium thick, white below soil surface and purplish above. Leaf is very deeply divided, with three lobes and two shoulders; margin entire, light green above and gray green under surface; veins moderately heavy, light green in color.; petioles are thin, rather short, light purplish in color." 1
Porto Rico History
Growers throughout southern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and in northeast Texas have in recent years become enthusiastic over the possibilities of the Porto Rico potato. It is said always to give a good yield on almost any soil, although some growers claim it does not thrive on new ground. It not only yields well but is a fair keeper, ships well and is good as soon as dug. This variety, though not as widely known as the Nancy Hall and the Nansemond, is very rapidly becoming popular on the big markets. The Porto Rico, however, seems to be very susceptible to attacks from the sweet potato root-borer or sweet potato weevil. The potatoes are medium large, rounded, regular, deep salmon skin, very rich salmon flesh, sweet and juicy and in the South are considered very choice for baking.
Pumpkin Yam History
This is a yellow or pumpkin colored sort similar in color of roots to the Nancy Hall. The vines are long and the leaves entire. The stems are green and hairy and the leaves are green on both sides. The roots are medium sized, -smooth and well formed with prominent bright-yellow veins. The flesh is mottled yellow and white with yellow predominating. The potatoes are formed unusually deep in the ground and for this reason are not so readily attacked by the sweet potato weevil, though the roots seem quite susceptible to fungous diseases. This variety is very sweet, very moist and soft in texture.
Old Spanish History
The Spanish potatoes constitute a distinct class characterized by the slim narrow crooked potatoes with white skin inclined to pinkish shades and with grayish-white flesh. The Tolman strain is very similar to its close relative, the White Barbadoes.
The Triumph is the earliest potato on the market and being white and mealy sells well in the North. It is not so good for the southern trade and does not sell so well after the early season demand is over. The Triumph is not a good keeper. It is a heavy yielder and is noted for the prominence of the veins and the large size of the roots when left in the ground until mature. The vines are bushy in nature and the leaves deeply cut. Because of the bushy nature of the vines, they are very easy to cultivate. The vine growth has been described as follows:
Sweet Potatoes (Virginia Cookery Book 1885) History
The finest sweet-potatoes are grown in the tide-water regions of lower Virginia, where the soil is sandy and the winters mild. Almost all families there have a pit dug in some cellar, when where sweet-potatoes are kept without difficulty all the winter through; but the most prized variety is too delicate for transportation, and is kept for home consumption.
The usual every-day way of cooking them is to bake them with the skins on, always seeing to it that a print of butter is put on the table to eat with them. An hour is the usual time allotted for their baking. A very nice way is to boil or steam them until nearly done, then to peel them, and cut into slice half an inch through, piling a baking-dish full of them, interspersed with bits of butter; a quarter of a pound may be allowed for a half-gallon dish; sprinkle on top two table-spoonfuls of granulated white sugar, and you can hardly have a dish on your table that will be more generally relished. Sometimes also, for a change, they may be steamed or boiled, peeled, and sent to table in a covered dish, with a tablespoon of melted butter poured over them.
Sweet-potatoes are frequently used in Virginia, with the accompaniment of a rich glass of milk, as a sort of plain dessert at the winding up of the meat dinner.
Virginia Cookery Book, Compiled by Mary Stuart Smith (NY: Harper, 1885): 134-35.
Fried Sweet Potatoes (Queen of the Kitchen 1874) History
Wash and pare them. Parboil them for ½ an hour, and then fry them in boiling lard. Split them in two after boiling them. (Recipe 403) Miss Tyson, The Queen of the Kitchen (Philadelphia: Peterson, 1874).
Fried Sweet Potatoes, Puffed (Harder’s Practical American Cookery 1885) History
Peel some medium-sized Sweet Potatoes, and slice them lengthwise in pieces one-quarter of an inch thick. Fry them in lard that is not too hot, and when soft, drain them. Then let the lard get hot again, after which throw the Potatoes in, turn them with the skimmer for a few minutes. When they get puffed and browned, drain them on a napkin. Season with salt and pepper, and serve them on a napkin.
Jules Arthur Harder, The Physiology of Taste—Harder’s Book of Practical American Cookery (San Francisco, 1885), p. 348.
Sweet Potato Fritters (Harder’s Practical American Cookery 1885) History
Peel half a dozen boiled Sweet Potatoes, cut off both ends, and then slice them in pieces half an inch thick, and one inch wide. Put them in an earthen bowl, moisten them with a wine-glass full of brandy, add the peeling of one lemon, and allow them to macerate for one half an hour. Then drain them, dip them in a batter, fry them in hot lard until nicely browned, and drain them. Serve them on a napkin and sprinkle powdered sugar over them. Jules Arthur Harder, The Physiology of Taste—Harder’s Book of Practical American Cookery (San Francisco, 1885), p. 348.
Scalloped Sweet Potatoes (Colonial Receipt Book 1907) History
Pare potatoes and cut in moderately thin slices, boil in a large supply of water with some sugar in it, a cupful of sugar to a pint or more of potatoes. Boil until they begin to look clear about two or three hours according to quantity. Then put them in a baking dish with a liberal supply of butter, add the syrup in which they were boiled, it ust cover them completely. Bake in a moderate over two or three hours until the syrup is all absorbed, if they get too dry before they are very clear, add a little more water, not so as to leave dry, only rich and clear without any water soaking in the dish. If they get too brown, put paper over them. (Recipe from Katherine R. Poxton, San Francisco) Mrs. Frederick Sidney Giger, Colonial Receipt Book (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1907), p. 74.
Candied Sweet Potatoes (Colonial Receipt Book 1907) History
After potatoes have been thoroughly boiled take off skins and cut the lengthwise in quarters. Then in a baking pan dissolve a large piece of butter with one half cut of brown sugar, lay the potatoes in a pan and cook them for about 15 minutes, basting them every now and then with the syruyp and turning them several times. Serve very hot. (Recipe by Rose B. Painter, Muncy, PA). Mrs. Frederick Sidney Giger, Colonial Receipt Book (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1907), p. 75.
Sweet Potato Pone #1 (Carolina Housewife 1847) History
A quart of grated potato, three-fourths of a pound of sugar, ten ounces of butter, half a pink of milk, three table-spoonfuls of powdered ginger, the grated peel of a sweet orange. Rub the ingredients well together, and bake in a shallow plate, in a slow oven.
Sweet Potato Pone #2 (Carolina Housewife 1847) History
Peel and grate two moderate sized sweet potatoes; pour on it nearly a pint of cold water, four good spoonfuls of brown sugar, one good spoonful of butter; season with ginger to taste. Bake in a moderate over about three hours. Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979 facsimile of the 1847 edition), pp. 130-131.
Pone of Sweet Potato (Practical Housekeeper 1857) History
To three pounds of sweet potatoes grated, add a pound of butter and a pound of sugar, with six eggs, a tea-cup of sour cream or buttermilk, and a teaspoonful of soda. Bake in a buttered dish, and serve hot. Elizabeth Ellet, The Practical Housekeeper (NY: Stringer & Townsent, 1857), p. 385.
Sweet Potato Pudding (Virginia House-Wife 1838) History
Boil one pound of sweet potatoes very tender, rub them while hot through a colander; add six eggs well beaten, three quarters of a pound of powdered sugar, three quarters of butter, and some grated nutmeg and lemon peel, with a glass of brandy, put a paste in the dish, and when the pudding is done, sprinkle the top with sugar, and cover it with bits of citron. Mrs. Mary Randolph, The Virginia House Wife, or methodical Cook (Baltimore: Blaskett, Fite & Co., 1838), p. 121.
Sweet Potato Waffles (Creole Cookery Book 1885) History
Two tablespoonfuls of mashed sweet potato, 1 of butter, 1 of sugar, 1 pint of milk, 4 tablespoonfuls of wheat flour; mix all well together, and bake in a waffle iron. Christian Woman’s Exchange, The Creole Cookery Book (New Orleans: T. A. Thomason, 1885), p. 89.
Sweet Potato Buns (Virginia House-wife 1837) History
Boil and mash a potato, rub into it as much flour as will make it like bread—add spice and sugar to your taste, with a spoonful of yeast; when it has risen well, work in a piece of butter, bake it in small rolls; to be eaten hot with butter, either for breakfast or tea. Mary Randolph, The Virginia House Wife, or methodical Cook (Baltimore: Blaskett, Fite & Co., 1838), p. 141.
Sweet Potato Biscuits (How we Cook in Tennessee 1906) History
Take one pint of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, one tablespoon butter, one pint sour milk, two eggs, one level teaspoon soda and flour to make a very soft dough; roll, cut and bake in moderate oven. (Mrs. Lillard recipe.) Silver Thimble Society, How we cook in Tennessee (Jackson, TN: First Baptist Church, 1906), p. 124.
Sweet Potato Bread (Philadelphia Cook Book 1886) History
1 quart of flour