Okay, let’s straighten this out once and for all. Those big orange roots you find in the grocery store are not yams. Got that? As a matter of fact, it’s a good bet that most of the people who read this blog have never even seen a yam unless they’ve traveled to a large metropolitan area with a significant West Indian or Asian population or to those areas of the globe (the tropics) where yams are grown as foodstuffs.
Yam is the common name for some plant species in the genus Dioscorea (family Dioscoreaceae) that form edible tubers. These are perennial herbaceous vines cultivated for the consumption of their starchy tubers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Oceania. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous root that is eaten as a vegetable. The sweet potato is native to tropical America, but is only distantly related to the potato (Solanum tuberosum) and does not belong to the nightshade family. The genus that contains the sweet potato also includes several garden flowers called morning glories.
The sweet potato is widely cultivated throughout the American South. The edible tuberous root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin whose color ranges between yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, and beige. Its flesh ranges from beige through white, red, pink, violet, yellow, orange, and purple. The sweet potato is the state vegetable of North Carolina, and the Sweet Potato Capitol of the World is Vardaman, Mississippi. Sweet potatoes came to be called yams by West Indian and African natives and the name endured. To prevent confusion, the USDA requires sweet potatoes labeled as “yams” to also be labeled as “sweet potatoes”. If you see a can of yams in the store, you’ll find “sweet potatoes” in the ingredients, not yams. So there.
Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State, first published in 1938, was an installation of the American Guide Series, a group of books published under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Though compiled by the FWP, the books were printed by individual states (Mississippi’s was sponsored by the Mississippi Agricultural and Industrial Board) and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state’s history and culture, descriptions of its major cities, automobile tours of important attractions, and a portfolio of photographs. Here is the section of the guide describing my home county of Calhoun at that time. Note particularly the description of the horse auction at Pittsboro, a possible setting for Faulkner’s Spotted Horses.
Jess Jr. was a demonstrative soul, without reserve when it came to expression of any kind, a candor that was celebrated by most, but often trying for my mother. She said it was especially difficult when they went to the movies, since my father’s tastes in movies resembled those of a little old lady’s rather than a middle-aged man, a World War II vet and a veteran prosecutor in Mississippi courtrooms. She said he would hear about these movies from a whole slew of waitresses, secretaries and beauticians who kept him up with the latest Hollywood gossip, and whenever they went out of town he’s drag her to screenings of such films as Peyton Place, Madame X (his favorite courtroom scene) and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
“My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what that woman must be going through!?” he’d exclaim at the screen as Lana Turner took the stand, being (unsuccessfully) defended by her own son (whom she cannot acknowledge) for murdering a blackmailer . “Why doesn’t she say something? That judge would let her off in a heartbeat if she’d only say who she is!” Mother would never respond, just stared resolutely at the screen, avoiding the chilling glances of others in the theater. On more than one occasion, Daddy was reduced to great heaving sobs of woe, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life. Mother just kept a nest of clean handkerchiefs in her purse and passed them his way.
She always said she was glad none of us inherited this sense of drama, with the exception of my sister, who once bolted screaming out of a Memphis theater during a showing of The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue before they caught up with her.