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. 

Dairy Queen: A Small-Town Texas Icon

Seventy-seven years of Dairy Queen highlights:

1940: First Dairy Queen store opens in Joliet, Illinois.
1949: DQ introduces malts and shakes.
1951: Banana splits appear on the menu.
1953: First DQ store opens in Canada.
1955: Dilly Bar debuts.
1957: Dairy Queen/Brazier concept is introduced.
1958: Dairy Queen/Brazier food products introduced.
1961: Mr. Misty slush treat cools throats in the warm South.
1962: International Dairy Queen, Inc. (IDQ) is formed.
1965: First national radio advertising sends DQ message 169 million times a week.
1966: First national TV commercial, “Live a Little,” is aired.
1968: Buster Bar Treat is introduced.
1972: First DQ store opens in Japan.
1973: Say the word “Scrumpdillyishus!” and get a Peanut Buster Parfait for 49 cents.
1979: The DQ system debuts in the Middle East.
1980: “We Treat You Right” tagline debuts.
1985: Over 175 million Blizzard Treats sold in its first year.
1989: Dairy Queen ranked America’s #1 treat chain.
1991: First DQ store opens in Mexico.
1995: DQ Treatzza Pizza and Chicken Strip Basket debut.
1999: Pecan Mudslide Treat is introduced.
1999: A DQ operator in Massachusetts builds the world’s largest Blizzard Treat, weighing in at 5,316.6 pounds.
2001: Crispy Chicken Salad is introduced.
2001: The first DQ Grill & Chill restaurant opens in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
2002: Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, becomes manager of a DQ location in Texas for the day.
2003: The Blizzard of the Month program kicks off.
2004: The MooLatte Frozen Coffee Flavored Beverage line debuts in mocha, vanilla and caramel flavors.
2004: Award-winning Dairy Queen commercials can be seen throughout the country in the system’s first full year of national advertising.
2005: GrillBurgers are introduced on national TV.
2005: A new World’s Largest Blizzard record is set when a new 22 foot tall Treat is built weighing 8,224.85 pounds in Springfield, Massachusetts.

When I was a young boy growing up in North Texas in the early 50s, Interstate highways didn’t exist. In fact, I’m not sure if the two-lane roads of the time could even be considered a highway, at least not by today’s standards. So when my parents, sister and I made the three and a half hour trip to my birthplace in southeastern Oklahoma, we drove through a number of small Texas towns–Melissa (pop 405), Anna (pop 520), Howe (pop 680), to name a few. I was always amazed that each and every one of those towns, no matter how small, had at least one Dairy Queen.

Always located close to the town’s edge, the local Dairy Queen, also referred to as “DQ” by many, seemed not only to be a popular eatery (in some cases the only eatery) but the community’s social center as well. You may not have been able to find a public library, or even a city hall in many of these towns, but everyone knew how to find the local Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen got its start in 1938 in an ice cream store in Kankakee, Illinois owned by Sherb Noble. It seems his good friend John “Grandpa” McCullough and McCullough’s son Alex convinced Sherb to begin offering his customers the soft-serve ice cream they had formulated. After selling more than 1,600 servings in just two hours the trio knew they were on to something big, so two years later, on June 22, 1940, the three friends opened the first Dairy Queen on 501 North Chicago Street in Joliet, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. And although that Dairy Queen closed for business in the 1950s, the building still stands as a city designated historic landmark.

The name Dairy Queen was derived from the phrase “the queen among dairy products” used by Grandpa McCullough in describing his ice cream. While the McCullough’s may or may not have invented soft-serve ice cream (some say that honor belongs to Tom Carvel), their proprietary recipe for it has always been a highly guarded trade secret known only by a trusted few.

While there are more than 4,500 DQ stores in the continental U.S., Texas is home to more Dairy Queens than any other state. All 593 stores in the Lone Star State are owned and operated by franchisees, a group of independent operators so large and with so much leverage they have their own Operator’s Council (TDQOC), host a separate marketing website from the national organization, and even maintain their own menu.

Yes, Texas Dairy Queens’ menu has food offerings not found in other U.S. locations. Branded as Texas Country Foods, some of the unique items you’ll find only at Texas DQ’s include “Hungr-Buster” burgers, the “Dude” chicken-fried steak sandwich and steak finger baskets, T-Brand tacos, and the “BeltBuster” half-pound double meat hamburger.

The first Dairy Queen in Texas opened its doors May 31, 1950 on U.S. Highway 259 in Henderson, a small East Texas city (pop 6,800) in the midst of an oil boom. Today this DQ holds the title of the oldest continuously operated Dairy Queen in Texas with almost seven decades of providing patrons courteous, efficient service and soft-serve ice cream, shakes, burgers and fries.

Although the Dairy Queen system has had many changes throughout the years, one constant has remained. DQ’s have always been and will continue to be the place where local sports teams celebrate their victories, business people go on their lunch breaks and families enjoy great food and soft-serve treats. In fact, Dairy Queen is the largest seller of soft frozen desserts in the world.

It’s been more than 50 years since those childhood trips to Oklahoma. Many of the small towns we used to drive through have all but died since being bypassed by the new super highways. As for myself, I prefer the nostalgia of driving the back roads. I enjoy the slower pace, the old turn-of-the-century buildings, and the friendly people. Most of all I enjoy stopping for a burger with extra onions, fries, and a soft-serve chocolate shake at the local Dairy Queen.