Yam or Sweet Potato?

My momma, like so many other Southern homemakers, made wonderful sweet potato pies. So good in fact, that I was in my teens before I knew that her pumpkin pies (one of my favorites) was actually made with sweet potatoes, not pumpkin. Later on for whatever the reason, she actually made pumpkin pies, and they were pretty damn good but I still liked the sweet potato version best.

The one thing my momma did not make was “yam” pies. In fact, I was a young man just entering the culinary world before I heard anyone use the word yam. Perhaps that was because we were pretty much country folks from Southeastern Oklahoma and not too savvy when it came to fancy culinary terms. I distinctly recall the first time I heard the word because the chef I was working under at the time used it when referring to a sweet potato dish we were preparing. That lead to a verbal altercation between him and our well-traveled Spanish sous we called Manny, who told him they were sweet potatoes, not yams. And as it turned out, Manny was right.

Did you know there’s a difference in yams and sweet potatoes? Well, there definitely is.

Yams

As it turns out almost all reddish-orange fleshed tubers eaten in the good ole’ US of A are sweet potatoes—not yams. In fact you nor anyone you know has likely ever seen a yam, much less eaten one.

Yams are monocots a member of the Dioscoreacea family, closely related to lillies and grasses. They are native primarily to Africa and Asia, although there are a few varieties grown in South America. There are over 600 known yam varieties with 95% of them from Africa. Yam tubers can grow to almost five feet in length and weigh up to 130 pounds. Even the word “yam” derives from the West African word “Unami,” “yam,” or “enzyme,” which means “to eat.” 

Yams have a thick, rough, scaly skin which is hard to peel. Their skin color may vary from dark brown to light pink. The vegetable’s meat can also vary in color from white to yellow, purple to pink. Yams have a mild earthy taste although drier and starchier than sweet potatoes, whose taste, as the name implies, is much sweeter. 

Sweet Potatoes 

The sweet potato on the other hand belongs to the morning glory family, Convolvulacea. And while its large, starchy, sweet tasting tuber is the popular prize, its young leaves and shoots are also edible. The long, tapered root has a smooth skin ranging in color from brown to yellow, to red, white, and purple. Its flesh can also be light beige to yellow, red-orange, orange, and purple, although the orange fleshed varieties Jewel and Beauregard are the most popular in this country.

Thought to have originated in Central or South America, the sweet potato was domesticated in the Americas more than 5,000 years ago. In Peru sweet potato remains have been found that date back to 8000 BC.

However, in the 1700s Captain Cook while on his exploration of the Polynesian islands  some 4,000 miles from South America discovered sweet potatoes being grown there. Later European explorers also discovered them throughout the Pacific from Hawaii to New Guinea. This brought up a question still unanswered today. How did the sweet potato get from South America to those Pacific islands?

The fact is, sweet potato ranks sixth as the world’s most valuable crops, after rice, wheat, potatoes, maize, and cassava. And it provides more nutrients per acre than any other staple. As it turns out sweet potatoes have helped sustain humans for centuries. There are about 6,500 sweet potato varieties cultivated in almost every major country in the world, including Australia, China, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, and of course North and South America. The exception is Europe, which is not a big fan.

And while sweet potatoes are grown mostly for use as food, many people grow them for their beautiful ornamental value.

But how did the term “yam” become so synonymous with sweet potatoes in this country? Well it seems that a Louisiana researcher by the name of Julian Miller developed a new variety of sweet potato with creamier, less stringy flesh and a more tender skin. It was also higher in vitamin A that traditional sweet potatoes. As a marketing ploy to distinguish their new product, the Louisiana sweet potato industry used the term “yam.” This was undoubtably a successful campaign as the term has stuck in the minds of the American public. So much so that the USDA now requires the words “sweet potatoes” to be incorporated on all domestic yam labels in an effort to clear up the confusion.

Sweet potatoes have been an important part of the U.S. diet from its beginning, especially in the Southeastern part of the country. The per capita consumption of sweet potatoes was about 30 pounds prior to 1920, but due to our societies growing affluence and its connotation as a poor man’s food, consumption has dropped to about 4 pounds today.

In spite of its Latin origin, China is the world’s producer and consumer of the sweet potato, growing about 90 million tons annually. In our country, about 39% of sweet potato production comes from North Carolina, followed by California at 23%, Louisiana at 16% and Mississippi’s 19%.

Now that you know a little about the world of sweet potatoes and how nutritious they are, I hope you’ll enjoy one with your next steak instead of the same ole’ mundane russet potato you normally have. 

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TV Dinners

How many of you remember TV dinners? While I can certainly remember them, how popular they became, and other innovations they brought to our lives, they were never a big item at our household. Oh don’t get me wrong, my family tried them but their popularity was short-lived in our home. Perhaps it was their size (it took at least two of them to satisfy my father’s hunger), or maybe it was the cost which, although only 98 cents each, severely strained my parents’ very modest food budget. But I think the biggest reason was the limited selection from which to choose. I mean, how many times a week do you want to eat turkey, roast beef, or Salisbury steak?

One of the biggest changes TV dinners brought to our home was the divided aluminum trays, which we were mandated to wash and save so my mom could reuse them to plate her mouthwatering home-cooked meals, meals which we ate off of cheap, rickety folding TV tables, while watching Ozzie and Harriet and I Love Lucy on our 21-inch Magnavox table model television in glorious black and white.

Although it was the Swanson Company of Omaha, Nebraska who coined the name “TV dinner,” they were not, as many people think, the inventor of the frozen meal. Utilizing the freezing technique invented in 1925 by Clarence Birdseye, the first precooked frozen dinners called Strato-Plates were actually developed in 1945 by Maxson Food Systems for the airlines. Unfortunately, William Maxson’s untimely death two years later prevented his company from offering those meals to the American consumer.

Next on the scene was the Bernstein brothers, Albert and Meyer, who in 1949 created Frozen Dinners, Inc. They sold their frozen meals in a custom-made three-compartment metal tray under the One-Eyed Eskimo brand name. Initially the Bernsteins only marketed their brand in the Pittsburg area with 1950 sales of slightly more than 400,000 units. In 1952 the brothers formed Quaker State Food Corporation, expanded their market area, and by 1954 they had sold over 2,500,000 frozen dinners.

Enter the Swanson Company who, with their already well-established brand name, successfully brought frozen meals to homes nationally. On this, food historians agree. They also seem to agree that the creation of these meals was brought about as the solution of what to do with 260 tons of frozen turkeys the company had over-purchased for the 1953 Thanksgiving season—turkeys that were stored in refrigerated railroad cars traveling back and forth across the country to prevent their spoilage. (It seems that refrigerated cars at the time only worked if the cars were moving.)

The controversy associated with the Swanson’s story lies not in the resolution but in exactly who’s idea it was for finding their way out of their turkey dilemma.

For years the accepted story was that Gerry Thomas, a Swanson & Sons salesman, was the brainchild behind the whole idea.  Thomas suggested they fill aluminum trays similar to those used by Pan Am Airways with a turkey dinner complete with cornbread stuffing, gravy, buttered peas, and sweet potatoes. In fact, the story was so popular that Thomas was honored by the American Frozen Food Institute’s “Frozen Food Hall of Fame” as the TV dinner’s creator. He was also credited with coming up with the name “TV dinner.”

Betty Cronin, who at the time was a 21-year old bacteriologist and the Swanson employee charged with figuring out how to reheat the dinners evenly and safely, asserted that it was actually the sons Gilbert and Clarke Swanson who were the inspiration. They then turned to their marketing and advertising teams of which Thomas was part of to develop the name and sales strategy for introducing the product.

Regardless of who was the actual inventor, the fact is that the Swanson TV dinner was an immediate success. Introduced on September 10, 1953 at a price point of only 98 cents each, Swanson’s first year sales exceeded 10 million units, and 25 million the next. 

With such a success, it didn’t take long for Stouffer’s (1946), Banquet, Morton’s, and others to join in with their own versions of pot roast, Salisbury steak, and fried chicken dinners, eventually making the frozen meal industry worth several billion dollars annually.

While the term “TV dinners” went away in the mid-1960s, Swanson remains a prominent player in today’s crowded frozen meal market with its Hungry-Man and Sports Grill line of dinners. And for those who perceive these larger more manly portions of chicken, pork, and beef dinner choices a bit too unhealthy, there is always Lean Cuisine’s “low calorie” dietetic choices.

Another thing that has gone the way of TV dinners is the low price. Today’s frozen meals cost an average of $3 to $4 for a single entree and as much as $10 to $12 for a “family size” dinner.

So next time you don’t feel like cooking dinner, you might consider picking up one of these frozen “delights” to pop into your microwave. Oh, did I forget to mention that today’s frozen meals come in microwavable containers? Yeah, the compartmentalized aluminum tray is no longer available.