Here's a fact: the "Carolinas" are crazy about their sweet potatoes.
The root vegetable is the state veggie of North Carolina and Mississippi has been dubbed "The Sweet Potato Capital of the World" But the ruby red that comes from the soils of South Carolina have captured this New Englander's heart. (Pie, pudding, casserole, spirals or mashed with butter, marshmallows, maple syrup or pecans - I love it every way.)
Every year the town of Darlington, SC shuts down to honor the tuberous vegetable with a festival of its own featuring products and foods made from sweet potatoes, lots and lots of sweet potatoes. I am going to make a point of visiting the festival in the fall of 2019. In the meantime, I've been digging up some back story on the historic aspects of the of the vegetable.
Sweet potatoes originated in Central and South America, but they managed to travel across the Pacific by 1000 AD. This is a curious fact that scientists have uncovered through plant DNA studies. It seems that Europeans, from Christopher Columbus' 1492 voyage onward, were responsible for many of the food transfers between continents.
After Columbus, it took just over 50 years for the tomato, a native of Peru, to reach Italy where the sauce-loving Italians were recommending it be fried in oil with salt and pepper, according to Laphams Quarterly. (The British thought tomatoes smelled and were poisonous.)
But, 400 years before Columbus, the sweet potato managed to travel 5,000 miles across the Pacific from South America to Polynesia, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
How did that happen?
The sea-faring Polynesians may have accomplished the daunting voyage, which would have been like traveling to the moon without knowing the moon was there. The voyage would have taken months. DNA research suggests the Polynesians landed on the west coast of South America and took some sweet potatoes home. Suffice it to say, these roots have roots.
According to April McGreger, author of Sweet Potatoes, A Savor the South cookbook, she says that all Southerners owe their lives to sweet potatoes.
“Without sweet potatoes, we would’ve probably starved at some point or another, particularly during and after the Civil War.”
She goes on to say that the sweet potato is one tough root. It’s thought to possibly be the oldest cultivated crop in the world. While it originated in Central or South America, sweet potatoes were later introduced to the southeastern United States and grown by Native Americans. As Europeans settled into the Palmetto state, the tasty crop became a cornerstone in sustenance farming. The sandy soil that is a hallmark of our region was ideal for sweet potato growth.
The nutritious vegetable was especially important to slaves working under harsh conditions. Beneath their cabins, they had root cellars in which they stored sweet potatoes through harsh winter months. But in many ways, not only did these sweet potatoes feed their bodies, they fed their souls.
“When enslaved Africans were brought over, the slave ships were provisioned with African yams, which are not at all what we think of as yams here in the United States,” McGregor says.
The continent’s yams are starchy and nearly the size of a football. Originally, the plan was to grow these yams in the South, but they didn’t survive the climate. Sweet potatoes — which were less sweet and not as orange as we know them today — worked as a substitute and reminded them of home.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers, who moved from battle to battle, often had to scavenge for their own food and would rely on the sweet potato greens that they stumbled upon.
Into the 20th century, sweet potatoes were associated with poverty as oftentimes it was all some people had to eat.
Sweet potatoes have continued to sustain the lives of farmers in recent decades. When the tobacco industry took a hard hit, many farmers turned to growing the sweet potato, an equally hardy crop, as a way to stay in business.
Since 1971, North Carolina has been the nation’s top producer of sweet potatoes, supplying about half of the nation’s annual crop. While South Carolina does not produce the volume of crop compared to the north, agriculture remains the number one industry. Farming is expected to reach $50 billion in economic impact by 2020,”
PHOTOGRAPH BY U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Author KATIE QUINE, Our State, What is the History of the Sweet Potato?
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