CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In just over a week, millions of Americans will be sitting down to enjoy a feast in honor of Thanksgiving, when we pause to give thanks for our blessings: food, family, friends and more.
It doesn't matter if you are gathered at a simple table at home, a lavish family dinner, a quiet meal with a few friends or none, or even a meal at a shelter or soup kitchen, sweet potatoes will probably be on the table.
Sweet potatoes (or potatoes in general) were not served at the first Thanksgiving celebration (there's also not conclusive evidence that turkey was, either), but it has become one of the staple foods for the holiday, along with turkey, pumpkin pie and cranberries (we'll talk about those next week).
The sweet potato story
Believe it or not, sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas) are in the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae) and are not related to white (or Irish) potatoes, which are in the Solanaceae family. Sweet potatoes are roots, whereas potatoes are tubers (a reproductive part of the stem).
Furthermore, sweet potatoes are not, and have never been, yams. Yams are in a totally different family and come from a totally different part of the world than sweet potatoes. If someone handed you a yam, you would probably stare blankly at it and wonder what on earth to do with it.
Yams are rough and scaly, with a whitish, dry and starchy interior, not to mention that they can grow up to 5 feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds. Yams are native to Asia and west Africa, and are a staple African crop. Sweet potatoes hail from Central and South America, which is why we include them in a feast that celebrates the "plenty" in our American foodscape.
We like to eat our sweet potatoes baked, in a casserole, simmered in brown sugar and butter, topped with marshmallows, or in a pie. No matter how you eat them for Thanksgiving, the best-tasting ones are those you buy from a local farmer or grew yourself.
Grow some for next year
Sweet potatoes are not difficult to grow. Start with young plants, or slips, after last frost. You can buy slips from a local garden center or start your own by burying sweet potatoes in warm, moist sand in a warm, light area indoors about six weeks before planting.
Like their cousin the morning glory, sweet potatoes love lots of room to spread their vines, but there are compact bush varieties for small gardens or large containers. If you have room, traditional varieties such as 'Beauregard' and 'Jewell' will work and are easy to find at local stores. Compact varieties that include 'Vardaman' and 'Bush Porto Rico' are better for smaller spaces but might be harder to find.
After you plant them (about a foot apart), the most maintenance they'll need is weeding and watering, if it turns dry. Dig them before the first frost in the fall and cure them to make sure they store well. (To cure, put them in a warm, dry place for two to three weeks after harvest. After they have cured, store them in a bin, cellar or other cool, dry place until you use them.)
Make sure they're in a place where they can't freeze. My options are limited, so I tend to store stuff like this in a basket on the bottom shelf of cabinets in my kitchen and dining room. The cooler temps near the floor are just what you need.
Since we are talking food, I thought I would end with a favorite recipe. I usually make this with butternut squash, but the similar yellow-orange flesh of the sweet potato will work equally as well. Because I grew sweet potatoes, and not butternuts this year, this switch will let me cook one of my favorite fall dishes. You can serve it warm like a pilaf or cool like a salad.
Sweet and Savory Autumn Barley Pilaf (or Salad)
Makes about 6 servings of 1 cup each.