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. 

Biscuits and Gravy: My Favorite Classic Southern Breakfast Food

B&G Nealey DozierI’m not really sure when I developed my fondness for biscuits and gravy, as it was certainly not a regular part of my momma’s breakfast repertoire. Now don’t get me wrong. My momma was an outstanding country cook, but homemade breads (other than cornbread) was just not something she normally did.

On the other hand, my maternal grandmother made outrageously good biscuits. She would rise every morning before dawn, walk to the barn to milk the cow, and then walk back to the house where she would wake the biscuit1family and start her breakfast routine. This always meant scratch-made biscuits, about three-inches across and almost two-inches high, cut out with an old tin can from which both ends had been removed. I still remember how she would blend the Crisco into the mound of flour, baking powder and soda with her fingertips. Then she would make a well in the center, add fresh buttermilk, and gently knead the mixture into a smooth dough. Sometimes she would let me help cut out the biscuits while she carefully placed them in a large pan containing just a little hot grease, making sure she turned each biscuit over to coat each side. This, she contended, helped the biscuits develop a crisp brown top crust while the insides remained light and fluffy.

While the biscuits were cooking, she would fry some country sausage and use the drippings to make white cream gravy. Then we would all sit down to a big breakfast of eggs (gathered fresh that morning), sausage, biscuits, and gravy. Leftover biscuits were saved for mid-morning snacking.

While neither biscuits nor gravy actually originated in America, the dish seems to have emerged as a distinctively southern dish in the late 18th century, sometime after the American Revolutionary War. For persons facing a day of laboring in the fields of a farm or plantation, starting with a meal that was both tasty and filling was a necessity. But with food stuffs expensive and in short supply, it also had to be cheap. Thus came biscuits and gravy.

biscuits & gravyIn the South, pork sausage was both popular and available throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thanks to the English introducing pigs to Jamestown in 1608. And home cooks, in utilizing all an ingredient had to offer, turned the grease left from cooking the pork into gravy, using flour, water, milk, and pan scrapings. This kind of gravy, seasoned with only salt and black pepper is known by several names including Sawmill Gravy, Logging Gravy, Life Everlasting, and Poor Do, all of which suggest subsistence food for the poor.

Sawmill gravy (logging gravy) got its name from its association with the Appalachian logging camps of the late 19th century, where crews and their families often survived on little more than coffee, meat, gravy, and biscuits. Also unique to these camps were the “cat head biscuits,” so called because of their size and rough exterior, reminiscent of a cat’s head.

Other variations of breakfast gravies found served over biscuits include:

? Country, cream, milk, or white gravy – essentially sawmill gravy seasoned only with salt and pepper, without the crumbled sausage bits. This kind of gravy (essentially a Béchamel sauce) is not only good over biscuits, but with chicken fried steak and fried chicken as well.
? Egg gravy – a white gravy made with bacon fat, flour, salt, pepper, and equal parts milk and water, to which a beaten egg is swiftly stirred.
? Chocolate gravy – another variation of cream or milk gravy to which cocoa powder and sometimes sugar has been added.
? Red-eye gravy – usually made from the drippings of pan fried ham which has been deglazed with black coffee. This is another staple of southern cuisine and is sometimes served over grits, as well as biscuits.
? Tomato gravy – white gravy with diced or crushed tomatoes mixed in.

Biscuits too can be prepared in numerous ways. The dough can be rolled or patted flat and cut into rounds. Or, if extra liquid is added to the dough to bring its consistency to that of stiff pancake batter, spoonfuls can be dropped onto the baking sheet, producing “drop biscuits.” Another common variation is “cheese biscuits,” made by adding grated cheddar cheese to basic biscuit dough.

biscuit3Today, one does not need baking skills to enjoy biscuits. There are any number of biscuit mixes available at your local supermarket that require only the addition of water to make dough which you yourself cut, pan, and bake. Also available in the freezer section of your food store is pre-measured frozen biscuit dough, which requires only placing the pucks on a pan and baking. Any of these products will give you an acceptable morning biscuit.

Far less acceptable, but more convenient, are fresh or frozen pre-baked biscuits that need only be heated for a few seconds in your microwave. These are usually available at some independent bakeries and upper end supermarkets.

9c09_35And finally, the abomination of all biscuits–the refrigerated biscuit! Developed and patented in 1931 by Ballard and Ballard, these cylindrical segments of dough encased in a cardboard can may be convenient and even somewhat tasty, but they do not a biscuit make. As much as I hate to admit it, this was my mom and dad’s idea of “homemade” biscuits.

biscuit2I guess all of those times helping grandmother make her fantastic biscuits must have had a positive impact on not only my taste buds but my desire to never again have to eat those store bought cardboard canned biscuits. Today, I make my own buttermilk biscuits totally from scratch. And what’s more, they are a golden, crisp, brown on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. Damn near as good as grandmother’s. In fact, writing this story has made me really hungry for– you guessed it–homemade biscuits and sawmill gravy. So, I’m off to the kitchen to whip up a batch. Wanna join me?

Try Em: Southern Sausage Gravy, Appalachian Sawmill Gravy, Old Fashioned Buttermilk Biscuits, White Lily Light and Fluffy Biscuits