Sweet potatoes deserve so much more than Thanksgiving

Since the beginning of 2022, I have consumed more than my body weight in sweet potatoes. The average American eats roughly the equivalent of one (1) french fry a day, but for the past decade I’ve been eating at least half a pound of the root with almost every dinner. I travel more reliably with sweet potatoes than with my wife. All I need to eat is a microwave and something to protect my hands from the heat.

Tomorrow, Americans will finally put the sweet potato in the spotlight—and still not appreciate it for all it’s worth. Families across the country will be smothering the roots with sugar and butter under a crunchy marshmallow crust. This classic pot can be the real deal only sweet potato servings some people have year-round—which is a travesty in terms of quantity and (sorry) style of preparation. Sweet potatoes deserve so much more than what Thanksgiving serves them. And maybe they would have, if they weren’t so misunderstood.

For starters, sweet potatoes are not potatoes or sweet potatoes. Each belongs to a special family of plants. And although potatoes and sweet potatoes are technically tubers, a riff on the stem of the plant, the sweet potato is a modified root. The common name doesn’t really help, which is why many experts want to change it sweet potato until… sweet potato. Even in stores there is confusion. A little part of Lauren Eserman-Campbell, a geneticist and sweet potato expert at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, dies every time she sees a can of Bruce yams.

Basically, sweet potatoes in American markets resemble Bruce’s (un)yam: orange flesh, brown skin, sweet, moist. But the true range of the plant is much more diverse. The outer part comes in earthy colors of umber, blush red and purple, and sandy beige tones; the interior can be cream, buttercup yellow, melon, lilac, even a shade of purple bordering on black. Some are quite watery; others are almost as dry and starchy as bread. Not all of them are even noticeable sweet. And thanks to the plant’s crazy genetics—six copies of each of its 15 chromosomes—almost any combination of color, texture, flavor, shape, and sugar and water content can result from a cross between, say, a dry, veiny purple and a moist, smooth-skinned orange. Craig Yencho, a sweet potato breeder and geneticist at North Carolina State University, told me that, given enough time, “I could find a sweet potato that almost any consumer would enjoy.”

The common misconception that potatoes are fattening and devoid of nutrients (slander!) might make some people think the same or worse about sweet potatoes. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Compare their nutritional profile to other staple crops, such as rice, wheat and maize—all of which command a larger share of the world market—and, in many respects, “sweet potatoes come out on top,” says Samuel Acheampong, a geneticist at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. . Especially varieties with orange flesh are full of iron, zinc and beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A; purple ones are rich in cancer-fighting anthocyanins. Even sweet potato leaves are powerful, packed with folate and surprisingly high in protein. They are also delicious fried.

Sweet potatoes don’t usually catch America’s attention until November, but they’re hardy, flexible and ubiquitous enough to be an anytime, anywhere food. They have taken root on all continents, except Antarctica; they were rocketed into space. Acre by hectare, sweet potatoes also produce edible crops far more efficiently than many other plants, “and that’s really important in families where they don’t have enough quality food,” says Robert Mwanga, a sweet potato geneticist in Uganda, where some locals eat the roots in almost every meal. In Kenya, sweet potatoes sustained communities when other crops failed. Among some populations, the roots have earned a fitting nickname: cilera abanaprotector of children.

But even among scientists, the sweet potato wins, if not wins bad rap, at least unconvincing. “It’s a small community and there’s not a lot of resources,” Eserman-Campbell told me. “I went to a meeting of sweet potato growers once and I thought there would be more people there.” It doesn’t help that plants can be a genetic problem, Mwanga told me. Their many duplicated chromosomes make breeding difficult, and new sweet potato varieties can only be propagated by clonal cuttings. Among consumers, the sweet potato has also struggled to shed its reputation as a food for the poor, turned to in times of famine or war and culturally associated with low-income rural farmers.

People in the western world are catch on — especially now that sweet potatoes are so often touted by nutritionists as a superfood, says Ana Rita Simões, a taxonomist at Kew Gardens in London. In the past decade, demand for Yench’s sweet potatoes has tripled, perhaps quintupled; “I’ve never seen a crop grow like that,” he said.

Culinarily, however, Americans still struggle in the sweet potato minor leagues. The biggest hit continues to be the Thanksgiving combo — a dish that Acheampong loves but remains a little confused about. “You guys add a lot of sugar,” he told me, which is amusing, considering the orange-fleshed varieties are already pretty sweet. Plus, the pot is (sigh) under the thumb of Big Confection: its invention was commissioned as part of a ploy to sell more marshmallows. Sugar is all the way down.

I’m not here to beat anyone’s flesh; I’m celebrating any a dish containing sweet potatoes. However, it would be preferable to assign these beautiful roots the main role. In other parts of the world, sweet potato recipes range from sweet to savory, from appetizers to mains and desserts. They are mashed, fried, noodles; they are mixed into soups, drinks and pastries. They were even found in drinks. Imagine how they could decorate our Thanksgiving tables: baked sweet potatoes; grilled sweet potatoes; sweet potatoes—I mean, why not.

Or maybe there’s a more modest suggestion: enjoy the roots yourself. Yencho, like me, is a purist; he likes his sweet potatoes plain, baked until soft, no seasoning. They simply don’t need anything else.