Like many towns in the upland South, Vardaman grew up around a timber 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 lumber was gone, farmers in the area turned to the sweet potato and their intuitions were crowned with success. Vardaman is now the (admittedly self-proclaimed) Sweet Potato Capital of the World.
The distaff side of my family is from Vardaman, and I’ve been eating sweet potatoes my whole life, so for a long time I’ve been sailing along considering myself of an expert on the subject. Then here comes this McGreger girl who blows my dinghy out of the water. April McGreger has chops; whereas my father was a lawyer from Sarepta (sue me), she is a sweet potato farmer’s daughter from Vardaman proper. In her introduction to Sweet Potatoes, the tenth installment in the University of North Carolina Press’ “Savor the South” series, McGreger says, “By the time I was a teenager, I had worked at pulling slips, the shoots that densely bedded ‘seed’ sweet potatoes send up, and had spent a couple of summers riding the ‘setter’ that plants those sweet potato slips in expansive fields. I learned firsthand how eyes and ears and noses fill with dust from the warm, just-plowed earth and how the modern farmer’s schedule is set by nature and financial demands, often at odds with each other.”
People you have no idea how refreshing, how delightful it is to find a book about food written by a genuine human being who has a fundamental knowledge of “farm to table” and not by one of these pompous foodways pundits who don’t know a roux from a rutabaga or a kitchen flim-flam aristo whose closest connection to the earth is trying to grow weed on his daddy’s back forty before flunking out of college and entering culinary school. McGreger is a very fine writer (as we expect of Mississippi’s children) and a scholar to boot, so she takes an appropriately schoolmarmish tone when it comes to sweet potatoes. In her own rhetoric, she poses the question “Is there any food more central to our southern identity than sweet potatoes?” The short answer is no, and perhaps for that very reason the sweet potato demands definition, particularly as a botanical and linguistic entity. I’ll leave that explanation to April, who does a thorough job of sorting out the Latin as well as the vernacular. She spends some time on the history of this important foodstuff, pointing out the antiquity of its use and cultivation in the New World as well as its introduction to the Old. Central to her narrative is the role of the sweet potato in the culinary history of the American South where it’s been keeping body and soul together throughout the region’s tumultuous history.
Before getting to the recipes proper, McGreger includes a crucial section concerning the selection, storage and preparation of sweet potatoes as well as a description of a few of the most essential culinary varieties (some have been developed as a garden ornamental) and what sorts of dishes they are best suited. Granted most of us have access only to the traditional “moist, orange-fleshed, and sweet” types, but it’s worth knowing other varieties are out there, and if the trend to greater diversity in the marketplace and the proliferation of farmers’ markets continues, finding whites, yellows, purples and heirloom varieties is something to look forward to. Equally important is her section on selection and storage, since while she recommends buying sweet potatoes “dirty by the bushel, directly from a farmer”, the roots must be cured in a warm, humid environment for a few weeks in order to fully develop their flavor. Most essential is McGreger’s advice on the preparation of sweet potatoes, and since she is clearly the final court of authority when it comes to cooking these vegetables (roots and leaves, it’s worth noting), this section is the heart of her work.
McGreger chafes at being restricted to only fifty recipes, but to her credit she offers a spectacular variety “aimed to help you refine techniques to develop your own repertoire.” These are arranged in four categories: “Breakfast: Morning Pastries, Grits, Gravy, and Hash”; “Sides and Salads: Vintage Classics and Fresh, Modern Twists”; “Mains, Soups, Stews, and In-Betweens: A World of Flavor”; and “Desserts: A Little Something Sweet”. Early on she laments, “Once such a prominent food in the southern diet, the sweet potato is now eaten by many only on Thanksgiving in the form of sweet potato casserole or sweet potato pie”, and her selection of recipes is designed to illustrate the versatility of the sweet potato and to provide cooks at every level of proficiency with a means of making them more of a staple in the kitchen”, as well they should be.
April wryly regrets never winning the Little Miss Sweet Potato crown, but a lot of thought, a lot of time, and a lot of love went into this wonderful work, and in my less-than-humble opinion it establishes April McGreger as not merely a Little Miss, nor even a Queen, but as the Empress of Sweet Potatoes.
Consider the potato. Opposition preceded the acceptance of the potato into nearly every country of Europe. At first it was arraigned on the grounds that it encouraged flatulence and lust, which in itself is not surprising in an age (late 16th, early 17th centuries) when salamanders were believed to live in hot coals and harmless little old ladies were burnt as witches. The resistance of European populations to both the tomato and the potato can probably best be explained by a state of mind then prevalent in the intellectual milieu, that being the Doctrine of Signatures.
The Doctrine of Signatures can trace its roots back to a brilliant quack named Paracelsus. Paracelsus (1493?—1541) was a Swiss physician and alchemist. His original name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, so of course he changed it to Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus as soon as he could (wouldn’t you?). He was both popular and controversial. On the plus side, he rejected Galen’s humeral theory of disease, which had dominated and stultified medicinal science for the past thirteen hundred years; he advocated the use of specific remedies for specific diseases; he introduced the use of such chemicals as laudanum, mercury, sulfur, iron and arsenic into the medical battery; and he noted the hereditary patterns of certain diseases (e.g. cretinism).
On the negative side, he promulgated the Doctrine of Signatures. Basic to this doctrine is the notion that “like cures or affects like,” which is the underlying principle of sympathetic magic. This ancient principle enjoyed such a grip on the medieval mind that even someone as astute as Plutarch might say, “Such is the nature and such the temperament (of any given creature) that it draws out and receives the malady which issues, like a stream, through the eyesight.” Thus, they held that if someone with jaundice looked at a stone-curlew, and the bird looked back, he or she would be cured of the disease. Taking this into consideration, the virtue of the curlew lay not in its color—which is a rather drab mottled brown—but in the iris of its eye, which is large and golden, lending it a natural ability to draw out `yellow’ jaundice. Likewise, if you wanted a good ruddy complexion, you’d eat beets. If you wanted a pale complexion, you’d eat mushrooms. If you wanted bigger breasts or a larger penis, you’d eat . . . well, you get the drift.
Unfortunately for the potato, the early varieties cultivated in Europe produced irregularly shaped tubers, often with white nodules and knobby finger-like growths, which to the superstitious minds then rampant recalled the swollen, deformed feet and hands of lepers. Followers of Paracelsus made much of the supposed likeness between a particular plant and the outward manifestations of a disease, but, far from becoming celebrated as a cure for leprosy, the potato became to be condemned as a cause of the disease. Granted, this is something of a reversal of the first principal, but the potato, unfortunately, appeared on the scene when the main proponents of the Doctrine of Signatures had passed away and the potato’s condemnation was the outcome of popular inversion of the principle.
How ironic that the potato, a plentiful source of starch and rich in ascorbic acid, should find itself spurned by a population that constantly lived on the brink of starvation and suffered from epidemic scurvy. In France, the Parliament of Besançon banned the cultivation of the potato out of fear of leprosy in 1630. The potato had a particularly hard time in France, where it was still suspect as late as 1771, and it was not until 1787 that the potato became acceptable, and even then mostly by virtue of its flowers. Both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette wore the blue blossoms as ornaments in an ill-fated attempt to influence public opinion towards a more favorable attitude of the vegetable, but given the couple’s incredibly poor record in public relations, it probably did more harm than good. Catherine the Great shocked the Russian court by eating a dish of the tubers in public around the same time, and pronounced them “tres bien”. Catherine was an enlightened monarch, respected in many courts, and due to her blessings upon the potato, it was soon being used as a fermenting base for the making of vodka all over the Russian Empire. Potatoes became a staple in France (and Russia) by the beginning of the nineteenth century, and quickly became accepted throughout Europe.
On a more favorable note, perhaps at least from the vantage of this time of license, potatoes also enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac. This attribute largely came about due to its association with the sweet potato (all potatoes derive their English name from the sweet potato’s name among the Taino, batatas), which played a role in every dish intended to “incite Venus.” Shakespeare made use of this aspect of potato lore when he wrote of the tuber in two plays, the first written in 1597, the next in 1602:
My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of “Greensleeves,” hail kissing-comfits, and snow eryngoes*. Let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here…
The Merry Wives of Windsor, V, v., 18-22
*sea-holly, Eryngium maritium, enjoyed primarily for its roots, candied with sugar and orange-flower water which, as Evelyn noted in his diary, were a specialty of Colchester, and esteemed an aphrodisiac.
How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger, tickles these together. Fry, lechery, fry!
Troilus and Cressida, V, ii., 54-56
Shakespeare here is referring to the sweet potato (Ipomea batatas) rather than the common potato (Solanum tuberosum) in these plays (written in 1599 and 1602, respectively), since the potato did not put in an appearance in England until 1597 and was still scarce, but the sweet potato was already well-known and being sold in the streets in 1617 when John Fletcher penned this bit:
I have fine potatoes,
Will your Lordship please to taste a fine potato?
`Twill advance your wither’d state,
Fill your Honour full of noble itches.
The Loyal Subject III, v.
In the early days of the South, the sweet potato dominated the table. It is easy to grow, even in poor soil, and is baked, fried, boiled and even made into home brew. After the War, sweet potatoes were dried, roasted and ground to provide a sort of ersatz coffee. Vardaman, Mississippi, in my home county of Calhoun, bills itself as the “Sweet Potato Capital of the World,” and every year the town plays host to the Sweet Potato Festival the first week in Novembers, featuring arts, crafts, and contests of all sorts, culminating in the Sweet Potato Bowl Game on Saturday Night, when our Sweet Potato Queen is crowned.