Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Sweet Potato

In many homes across the United States, sweet potatoes are a Thanksgiving staple. Sometimes served as a side dish and topped with melted marshmallows, or even better, in pie form, sweet potatoes have a long history, especially in the South.

Sweet potatoes were a common tuber grown on Southern plantations. These highly nutritious root plants flourished in the gardens of both the free and the enslaved. Sweet potatoes are native to the tropical Americas and are often confused with the African and Asian yam due to its similarity in look and taste.   

The sweet potato first came to the colonial South from the Caribbean Islands in the late 17th century. The hearty root plants quickly gained favor with black and white Southerners for their versatility, longevity, ease of cooking, and flavor. The enslaved often cooked sweet potatoes by roasting them in the ashes of their fires, or boiling them, mashing them, and then baking or frying as a type of bread.

To help preserve sweet potatoes, slave quarters often included a floor hole where they could be stored for long durations. As an enslaved boy in Virginia, Booker T. Washington remembered:

“There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor. In the center of the earthen floor there was a large, deep opening covered with boards, which was used as a place in which to store sweet potatoes during the winter.  An impression of this potato-hole is very distinctly engraved upon my memory, because I recall that during the process of putting the potatoes in or taking them out I would often come into possession of one or two, which I roasted and thoroughly enjoyed.”

Although free and enslaved Southerners knew little to nothing about the vitamins and minerals that root plants like sweet potatoes afforded them, the tuber’s high levels of beta-carotene, calcium, iron, and fiber added significant nutrients to a diet largely composed of pork and corn. 

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

1 comment:

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