The Story Behind a Kitchen-Counter Sweet-Potato Patch

Cut sweet potato
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

There’s something about sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) that I cannot seem to shake. Maybe there’s some sort of cellular memory thing going on, like perhaps my ancestors sat around somewhere, gratefully chewing on roasted sweet potatoes, surviving a dry spell in food production. A good reason to foster a sweet potato patch.

We Americans now harvest far fewer sweet potatoes than 50 years ago – 190,000 acres in 1960 as opposed to 116,000 in 2010 according to statistics from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. But that number will likely increase, it seems, as local foods advocates realize what a nutritional treasure is the sweet potato.

Sweet potatoes and us – the story stretches way back into the past.

I love the stories related by the early explorers and settlers of Virginia, who – when they used the word “potato” – were really referring to the sweet potato. Many called it the “Spanish kinde,” as did John Parkinson in Paradisi in Sol (1629). In his 1597 Herball, John Gerard called the white potato the “Virginia potato.” And this is how he described the sweet potato: “The Potato roots are among the Spaniards, Italians, Indians, [from India] and many other nations common and ordinarie meate.” Thomas Jefferson mentioned sweet potatoes for the first time in his Garden Book as late as 1782.

What I find so terribly intriguing, though, apart from the confusion over the white versus the sweet potato, is that as early as 1587, a recipe likely using sweet potatoes appeared in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Housewife’s Jewell, one that has been quoted all over the culinary literature because the underlying text points to the inclusion of the “Potaton” as an aphrodisiac.

To make a tarte that is a courage
to a man or woman.
Take twoo Quinces, and twoo or three
Burre rootes, and a potaton, and pare
your Potaton, and scrape your rootes and
put them into a quart of wine, and let them
boyle till they bee tender, & put in an ounce
of Dates, and when they be boyled tender,
Drawe them through a strainer, wine and
all, and then put in the yolkes of eight
Egges, and the braynes of three or foure
cocke Sparrowes, and straine them into
the other, and a little Rose Water, and seeth
them all with suger, Cinamon and Gyn-
ger, and Cloues and mace, and put in a lit-
tle sweet butter, and set it vpon a chafingdish
of coles betweene two platters, and so let it
boyle till it be something bigge.

Taking 1587 as the date for the earliest published recipe written in English means that it took less than 100 years for the sweet potato to jump the English Channel, the original European landing spot for the sweet potato being Spain and Portugal.

And in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking, I found some others of the earliest recipes for sweet potatoes in Britain, dating to 1604, not surprisingly very similarly spiced as is the totemic candied sweet potatoes served at American Thanksgivings.

Sweet potatoes and us – the story stretches way into the future, too, as we rediscover the virtues of this humble root vegetable. The bright orange-fleshed roots seem to be making a comeback in the form of frozen fries and puffs. And even tortillas.

Sweet Potato Fries (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
Sweet Potato Fries (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Another fascinating thing – for me anyway – is that I cannot simply run out into the garden and dig up some sweet potatoes for dinner. They must be cured, preferably set on racks above the ground and allowed to dry out a bit. And then stored, but not for very long periods of time. In an agricultural bulletin published in 1936, George Washington Carver, a great African-American botanist, described in detail way in which farmers needed to treat their sweet potatoes post-harvest:***


By curing we mean to dry the moisture out of the potatoes to the point where they will give a little when pressed hard between the ball of the thumb and fingers.


I took an ordinary wire screen door, took of the fine wire and covered it with large coarse wire. I put from two to two and one half bushels of potatoes on this door which was placed in a window of an ordinary living room. The window was raised so there was a brisk breeze blowing directly over and through the potatoes. If dug in a dry time and the air is dry, three or four days are all that is necessary for medium size potatoes. I then lay them very carefully in barrels without breaking or bruising any, spread a bit of coarse bagging over the top of the barrel. I have paid no attention to temperature, except to keep them always above the freezing point.

Others advocated digging pits storing unblemished sweet potatoes covered with straw and soil.

Carver also provided specific directions for cooking sweet potatoes, with 32 recipes, all still very do-able and suited to contemporary tastes.

I’ve started growing my sweet potato slips, anticipating a spring day in May when I will stroll out on a warm balmy morning and plant my own sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potato Slips (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
Sweet Potato Slips (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

** Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking, edited with commentary by Hilary Spurling. London: Salamander Press: London, 1986, p. 193-194.

*** How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes and Ways of Preparing Them for the Table, BULLETIN NO. 38 NOVEMBER 1936, By Geo. W. Carver, M.S. AGR., D.Sc., Director, Experiment Station, Tuskegee Institute

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “The Story Behind a Kitchen-Counter Sweet-Potato Patch

  1. Thank you for the interesting article. For my south eastern Virginia family ( Surry & Isle of Wight Counties) the word “potato” meant one thing, a sweet potato. If you were referring to the other sort you said “white potato” or most likely “Irish potato”. My hair curls and teeth gnash when I hear sweet potatoes called yams!

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