*”Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new”: A Sweet Potato Rhapsody

Sweet potatoes 1 dark contrasts
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new,” or so confessed St. Augustine, a Catholic saint born in 354 A.D., in what is now Algeria.

And I, I could also say the same, about many things.

One of them being sweet potatoes, a beloved Southern staple.**

It was a Thanksgiving Day. I was five, going on six. Old enough to know what I liked to eat. But that day I added another “yuck” food to a list that already included liver and the overcooked broccoli my mother served with distressing regularity.
A friend of my mother’s, from Mississippi, brought a sweet potato casserole, all decked out with slightly browned marshmallows. I remember thinking, “How could anything with marshmallows taste terrible?”

With the first shocking bite, amid memories of marshmallow-infused S’mores, I grabbed my napkin and spat out the gloopy orange mess coating my mouth. When nobody was looking, I sneaked the rest of it off my plate and hid the disgusting goo under the rim.

If you’d told me that the Incas ate sweet potatoes, roasted in the embers of fires in the High Andes, or that Renaissance-era French courtiers tittered about the aphrodisiac qualities of these odd-shaped roots, it wouldn’t have made any difference in how that first bite tasted to me. The Spanish sailed with sweet potatoes in their ships’ holds and spread them across the world, from Europe to Asia. Sweet potatoes may have saved Revolutionary War soldiers from sure death and I couldn’t fault George Washington for growing them at Mt. Vernon. Full of vitamin A, thanks to the beta-carotene signaled by their bright orange-red color, sweet potatoes pack a powerful lot of nutrition into a rather ugly little package.

But no matter how nutritious a sweet potato might be, no matter what George Washington Carver wrote about their virtues, I never touched another bite until a cold and rainy and windy Thanksgiving night, far from my own stove and family table. I still yearned for the foods that symbolized an American myth, the one that keeps Americans tied to a past both glorious and inglorious. So when I walked into the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW in Washington, DC, I had no idea what a culinary about-face I would soon be doing. As I sat down in a plush red-velvet-covered booth, eyeing the animal trophy heads covering the walls, some rumored to be bagged by Teddy Roosevelt, I glanced at the Thanksgiving prix-fixe menu lying on the freshly pressed white damask tablecloth.

“Sweet Potato Gratin.”

As the waiter hovered over me, pen in hand, foot tapping, I hesitated. And then I thought, “I am supposed to be adventurous when I eat, right?” So I plunged into it and asked for no substitutions.

Sweet Potato Gratin it would be.

And what a treat it was!

Tender slices of sweet potatoes bathed in a thick creamy sauce with hints of smokiness.

I’ve loved sweet potatoes ever since. Roasted, grilled, gratinéed, creamed, fried, puréed in soups, and baked into biscuits.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Food dislikes and aversions keep people from enjoying tastes and culinary experiences. When we step out of our comfort zone and try (and accept) new and strange foods, we expand the range of foods available to us. It’s taking that first step, that leap of faith, so to speak. That’s when we arrive at a place where we will never able to return to where we were before. That’s probably how culinary migrations have occurred throughout history, as long as people moved from one place to another.

For more on the care and cooking of sweet potatoes, see Virginia-Grown Sweet Potatoes.
For a bibliography on food habits, see World Food Habits

**Note that yams are not sweet potatoes, although in the 1930s Louisiana growers began calling theirs “yams” to increase their marketing potential. African yams do not resemble sweet potatoes at all.

Bruce's Yams 2
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

12 thoughts on “*”Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new”: A Sweet Potato Rhapsody

  1. Thanks for clarifying–sweet potatoes are NOT yams, yet even the clerk in our local market tried to tell me they were the same. Yams are better and actually sweeter. That’s why people load sweet potatoes with sugar and marshmallows–they aren’t very sweet on their own. Yams, however, can be microwaved in 6 to 8 minutes and are sweet and tasty with just a little butter added.

  2. Such an abundance, too, of vitamins and nutrients. They make a meal in themselves! Yams! Yum!

  3. I am a fan of sweet potato fries! So much better tasting than regular French fries.
    Cynthia, have you ever tasted crème d’ipômee? A thick French “jam” made from sweet potatoes, that tastes just like crème de marrons (chestnut cream). It is sold by the can. The best one is Moroccan-made (bien sûr!)

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