Vardaman is enthroned in southeast Calhoun County, Mississippi, some four miles northwest of Atlanta near the east end of the Yalobusha River. Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a lumber railhead. Some of the lordliest white oaks that ever left the Continent descended from the hills above Vardaman and were shipped across the Atlantic to construct the great barrels that held the finest wines of the 1925 Exposition of Paris.
But after the timber was gone, Vardaman found itself in need of an agricultural product that would thrive and was easily harvested. Almost instinctively, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. In 1981, after years of research, the Mississippi Agricultural Extension Service paraded out a bush variety named “Vardaman” almost as if in acknowledgement that the town had already become the Sweet Potato Capital of the World.
Being a native of the area, for some time I considered Jackson’s glittering purloinment of Vardaman’s signature crop as somewhat of a slight to the men and women in Calhoun County who worked without a single sequin to perpetuate a successful local agronomy. After all, I remember the days when being a Sweet Potato Queen required you to be a local girl, well under thirty and assumedly virgo intacta. But Jill Conner Browne and her campy court help promote sweet potatoes with a blithe vigor that the good people of Vardaman should learn to appreciate as much as I do now. Thanks to them, even you can be a Sweet Potato Queen. Or at least a Wannabe.
Now, you can use sweet potatoes in almost any dessert recipe calling for carrots or pumpkins, but because of its higher sugar content the spud is superior to both. If you don’t believe me, try them raw as a substitute for carrot sticks on your next vegetable tray. A traditional accompaniment to the holiday dinners in my family’s home has always been “candied” sweet potatoes (a sobriquet which is downright redundant and rarely used where I come from), but they’re also a great side with any sort of pork or game.
Peel and cut your sweet potatoes into rather large chunks. Put them in a pot and cover with a thin syrup of water, brown sugar or molasses, a little butter and just a pinch of salt. Cook the potatoes on a medium heat until the liquid has cooked down and the chunks are tender but firm. Then ladle them and the juice into a lightly buttered baking dish and place them in a low oven with a drizzle of brown sugar to finish. You can add some raisins (or any other sort of dried fruit, for that matter; I’ve always wanted to try mango) to the syrup if you wish or sprinkle with chopped pecans when done, but do not put those silly little baby marshmallows on this mixture to toast unless you’re just total trash.
To roast sweet potatoes, scrub them well, pat dry, cut the ends off (especially tapered ones that would scorch and shrivel otherwise) and rub well with a bit of salt and vegetable oil. Place them in a very hot oven. I bake mine in a cast-iron skillet. When they are quite done through, eat them with a pat of butter and thank God for Vardaman and all who sail in her.