SOME CALL ME BATATA
I have been in many, too many, conversations with people about Thanksgiving side dishes where someone pipes up, their voice just a little louder than normal and they proclaim, proclaim mind you, “WELL! YAMS are NOT really yams. They are SWEET POTATOES”. I think they expect a small round of applause. Mostly they get, “Really??? Yea. I’ve always been confused about that!
The slightly uppity “I know the real deal about yams” people are right. Sort of. I’m not really sure why this is considered such a NUGGET of KNOWLEDGE. Because the proclamation is rarely backed up with the story behind it. And there is one.
I wanted to make sure I had all of the pieces of the story on naming sweet potatoes straight so I thought – why not go to the source? Why not ask a sweet potato?
Do sweet potatoes talk? Well the one in my head does. Here’s the story she gives regarding the name-calling issue.
CYNTHIA: Lot of confusion out there about what is a sweet potato and what is a yam. Can you tell us how the confusion started?
SWEET POTATO: I’d be much obliged dearie. First of all let me tell you that I AM a sweet potato. A Beauregard to be precise. Even though I have orange-colored flesh and coppery skin and when you go to the grocery store you’re most likely gonna see a little sign sayin’ I’m some sort of yam. I am not a yam. I belong to the Ipomoea batatas family and ALL of us, literally by nature, are sweet potatoes.
SWEET POTATO: Now some time ago, mind you way before I was born, the sweet potato producers in this United States of America were growing sweet potatoes. They grew the kind with yella flesh, and the kind like me with orange flesh. These boys wanted to differentiate between the two flesh colors. The citizens of the United States have always been a mixed lot of folks from all over the world and the sweet potato producers heard the Africans referring to the vegetable as “nyami” which is what it is called where they are from. Being fond of nicknaming, they shortened it to “Yam”.
CYNTHIA: So orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are called “yams” and the yellow fleshed ones are called “sweet potatoes”?
SWEET POTATO: Now wouldn’t it be nice if it were all clean and neat like that Cynthia. But it’s just not. As more and more varieties started making their way out of the garden, the folks namin’ them seemed to have no rules ATALL. Just named the poor sweet potatoes “yam” or whatever suited their fancy. I expect they named the variety whatever they thought might SELL best. Americans are a very enterprising sort you know.
CYNTHIA: Okay so a Red Garnet Yam is a sweet potato?
SWEET POTATO: Yes ma’am.
CYNTHIA: And the Japanese yam, which has yellow flesh, is also a sweet potato?
SWEET POTATO: Mm-hmm.
CYNTHIA: And the golden nugget sweet potato, which has orange flesh is a sweet potato.
SWEET POTATO: You are catchin’ on honey. The whole naming business makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine.
CYNTHIA: So I’m thinking you really have to cut open the sweet potato to know what color the inside will be and regardless of whether they are called sweet potato or yam they are all sweet potatoes, members of the Ipomoea batatas family.
SWEET POTATO: Bingo baby. Bingo.