Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Yams or sweet potatoes?

Every Thanksgiving, my family has a discussion, no a debate, over one of my favorite vegetables. Are they sweet potatoes or yams?

Everyone wants to weigh in on the question, but no one has done research on the topic. Part of the problem comes from the grocery store labels, which aren’t always accurate and are often confusing. If you resort to canned vegetables, the Bruce’s label reads “Candied YAMS” in large type, followed by “Cut Sweet Potatoes” in much smaller print. Is it any wonder that what begins with curiosity ends in near tears as my family argues over what we should call the dang things?

So this year, I decided to do my homework. Several internet sources all say the same thing. Sweet potatoes can be yellow or orange. They are tapered at both ends, and they are smaller than true yams. What most of us are eating along with our turkey and stuffing are sweet potatoes, no matter what your grandmother may have called them. So why do we call the orange cousins yams? That has been traditional since colonial times, and the USDA has labeled them yams to avoid confusion.

True yams are completely unrelated to the sweet potato. They are native to Africa and Asia and have a black outer bark-like skin and can grow to over 5 feet in length. While both sweet potatoes and yams are tubers, they have a different taste and consistency. True yams are prepared as a sort of porridge, not fried, baked, or candied. The word “yam” itself tells us about this tuber’s history and importance.  “Yam” comes from an African word that means, “to eat.” For many in Africa, the yam is a main food source, important both because of its size but also because it can be stored for a long period of times, ensuring that the people who depend on it will have something to eat during the rainy season.

So next Thursday when my family begins the debate, I can safely tell them that the yellow tubers that my mother fries are definitely sweet potatoes, and that the orange tubers that my daughter likes baked and topped with marshmallows are called yams by the USDA. But if we want to get picky, we should call them both sweet potatoes.

And a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.