Thanksgiving is coming – turkey and all the garnishes, yum. And one of these garnishes is traditionally sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are one of the oldest vegetables cultivated by mankind, first domesticated in Central America for more than 5,000 years. Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes. They liked them and brought them back to Europe. From there they spread throughout Asia and Africa.
Sweet potatoes are not related to white potatoes, although both have originated in Central America and South America and have a similar history. They are in the family of morning glory and the potatoes are in the family of nightshade along with tomatoes. Sweet potatoes are botanically roots and potatoes are tubers: a stem structure.
In addition, sweet potatoes are not the same as yams, although some use the names interchangeably. Yams are in a separate family of yam and originated in Africa and Asia. They are generally larger, drier, richer in starch and white. Nutritionally, sweet potatoes have a high rate of fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins A and C and low fat.
An interesting historical note on sweet potatoes – George Washington Carver, who was born a slave, became director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1890 to 1920. He is best known for his work on peanuts and sweet potatoes. He recognized the value of sweet potatoes and did extensive work, inventing more than 100 new uses for them, from synthetic rubber dyes, in addition to their food value.
Cotton, the main southern crop of the time, was very harmful to the soil. Carver promoted rotary cotton with sweet potatoes, peanuts and other legumes to improve soil and diversify agriculture. He was well ahead of his time.
The US ranks 10th in world sweet potato production (3.1 billion pounds). China is the first with three African countries and Vietnam, all in front of America. Alabama is the major producing state. Farms can produce up to 2,000 pounds of sweet potato per acre, compared to 4,000 pounds for white potatoes.
Consumption of sweet potatoes in the US grew from an average of 4.2 per person in 2000 to 7.6 in 2015. This increase was driven by the growing trend of healthier, colorful and unique foods and by the promotion of the sweet potato industry fries, chips and other convenience foods.
Compare that with the annual consumption of 117 kilograms of white potatoes from the Americans, mostly as French fries empanada with oil and salt and French fries.
So, eat more sweet potatoes. They are not just for Thanksgiving.
Ed Perkins grows sweet potatoes at his farm in Athens County.