This is a recording of Raymond Bailey performing “The Last Train through Vardaman” that Barbara Yancy made sometime in 1975-76. I lost the first part of Raymond’s narrative because the tape was so old and broke at both ends during recording, but I did hear it on the first playback. Raymond begins with saying, “This is ‘The Last Train through Vardaman.’ I remember we were loading the train that day, and my brother said, ‘Pile it high, boys, because this is the last train through Vardaman!’ So, we loaded her up (and away she went!)” The tape has him doing a couple of other songs, including ‘Nellie Gray’ and a version of ‘Casey Jones,’ but it’s too fragile for any further play. The locomotive is the OH&CC Number 9 at Okolona. Listen to Raymond here.
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 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.
McGreger 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. She 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”.
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.
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.
This recipe comes from April McGreger, a fellow native of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and author of Sweet Potatoes, the tenth volume in University of North Carolina’s wonderful “Savor the South” series. April is a splendid cook, but I find her technique a little fussy. I simply assemble the ingredients in a skillet, put a loose lid on it, and bake at 350 until potatoes are tender and syrup reduced.
The genius of southern food is less in its individual dishes than in the overall composition of the meal. Syrupy sweet potatoes balance earthy field peas and sharp turnip greens shot through with hot pepper vinegar. Crispy cornbread swoops in to sop it all up. Here is a particularly nuanced version of ubiquitous candied sweet potatoes that makes use of that coffee can of bacon grease my grandparents and parents kept above the stove.
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
4 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Layer the sweet potatoes in a large cast-iron skillet. Dot with the butter and bacon drippings, and sprinkle with the sugar and salt. Pour the water and lemon juice over the sweet potatoes and cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid or foil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the cover and simmer until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the sauce is thick, 30-35 minutes more. Baste the sweet potatoes with the syrup from time to time, being careful not to break them up.
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 just read that have never even seen a yam.
Sweet potatoes came to be called yams because they’re kind of/sort of similar, both starchy/sweet root vegetables, but they’re quite distinct; a sweet potato is far sweeter and much smoother than a yam. The most important distinction is that yams don’t grow in the South, but sweet potatoes do, in glorious profusion. Sweet potatoes have always been a staple of Southern tables as well as a reliable source of income. The sweet potato is the state vegetable of North Carolina, and the Sweet Potato Capitol of the World is Vardaman, Mississippi. (If tells you any different, they’re a double-dog liar who needs a thorough ass-kicking.
Still and all, you’re bound to find cans of yams in many local grocers, but due to USDA requirements, most inevitably you’ll find “sweet potatoes” somewhere on the label.
Vardaman, Mississippi is in southeast Calhoun County, near the source of the Yalobusha River, the largest tributary of the Yazoo. 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 wine barrels for the 1925 Paris Exposition. When the great forests of the southeast were depleted, Vardaman, like so many towns in the rolling hills, needed a sustainable crop. Farmers turned to the sweet potato and their efforts found success. Vardaman, Mississippi IS the Sweet Potato Capital of the World; all others claimants are pretenders.
Vardaman holds an annual Sweet Potato Festival in October—this year the 46th—that includes music, arts and crafts, exhibitions, cook-offs and lots and lots of food. Sweet Potato Kings and Queens are selected in no less than four events with contestants from infancy to high school. Many people consider the recipe contest the main event, and people go all out for the coveted prizes, including the Mayor’s Cup, which this year was won by Lyndsey Wade for her Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars. I’m also giving you the winner in the cake category, Melissa Edmondson’s spectacular Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting. Either or both of these desserts would be a splendid addition to your holiday table.
Scrumptious Sweet Potato Coconut Bars
¾ Cup Butter, melted
1 ½ Cups Graham Cracker Crumbs
1 (14 oz.) can Sweetened Condensed Milk
3 Cups Sweet Potato puree
2 Cups White Chocolate Morsels
11/3 Cups Flaked Coconut
1 Cup Chopped Nuts
Heat oven to 350 degrees and coat 9×13 baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumb mixture. Scoop sweet potato from the peeling and mix until smooth. Using a piping bag (or plastic freezer bag with hole cut in one corner), layer the graham cracker crust with sweet potatoes. Layer white chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Press firmly.Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool and cut into bars. Store covered at room temperature.
Sweet Potato Cake with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting
1 ½ Cups butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large eggs, separated
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups finely grated sweet potato
1 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 3 (8in) cake pans with nonstick baking spray with flour. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla at medium speed with a mixer until fluffy. Add egg yolks, beating until combined. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Gradually add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites at high speed with a mixture until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into batter. Gently stir in sweet potatoes and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 23 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, cool completely on wire racks. Spread White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting evenly between layers and on top and sides of cake.
White Chocolate-Cream Cheese Frosting
1 (4oz) white chocolate baking bar, chopped
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup butter, softened
16 oz. cream cheese softened
2lbs. powdered sugar
In a small sauce pan, combine chopped white chocolate and cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat, and cool for 1 hour. In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with a mixer until creamy. Add white chocolate mixture, beating until combined. Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until smooth. Note: Cake layers can be made up to 1 month ahead; wrap cooled layers tightly in plastic wrap and Freeze. To serve, spread frosting on frozen cake layers (frozen layers are easier to frost), and thaw. Store thawed cake, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.