Posts Tagged ‘Thanksgiving’

If you look closely at the can of Bruce’s yams over there to the left you’ll see that underneath where it says “Yams,” it says “Cut sweet potatoes in syrup.” Why? Because the United States Department of Agriculture says that foods have to be labeled in a way that explains what they are-not what we wish they were.

The chance of eating yams in North America on Thanksgiving is about as slim as everyone wearing black clothes and stovepipe hats with big silver buckles. Unless Aunt Betty shops at a market that ships yams in from Africa or the Caribbean, you’ve really been eating candied sweet potatoes all these years, pilgrim.  

Botanically speaking, yams and sweet potatoes couldn’t be more different; they are a different genus and a different species. Yams are monocots (one seed leaf) while sweet potatoes are dicots (two seed leaves) and in the world of botany, that is a big deal.  In fact, the only things that these two plants have in common are that they both flower and produce tubers. Yams, natives of Africa and from the yam (Dioscoreaceae) family, are more closely related to grasses and lilies than anything else. Sweet potatoes belong to the same family as morning glories (Convolvulacea) and have sweeter flesh than yams.

To make things even more confusing, the starchy and rather dry flesh of a true yam actually resembles that of a potato more than the flesh of a sweet potato does. Or at least, some sweet potatoes-there are both firm and soft fleshed sweet potato varieties. Firm varieties were known first and later, when the soft flesh varieties were developed, nobody could think of a name that would adequately separate the two. Since African slaves had been calling them yams (after their native “nyami” tubers) since around 1676 anyhow, the softer flesh varieties were called yams until the USDA stepped in to set things (botanically) straight. 

At the end of the day though, what people will remember about Thanksgiving are the good food and good conversation to be had-not the tired old sweet potato vs. yam controversy. But, if the conversation falters like it sometimes does, you can always revive it by telling everyone that virtually nothing on this year’s table appeared at the first Thanksgiving; probably not the turkey, and definitely not the mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. And not the sweet potatoes either; though grown in the south as early as 1648, sweet potatoes weren’t seen in New England until at least 1764-one hundred and forty three years after that first harvest feast.

Happy Thanksgiving! Please do your best to help those who are less fortunate this holiday season

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