It is turkey season, that time of the year when grocery stores fill freezer cases with mounds of frozen turkeys and loss leader them at super low prices. This week, Americans by the millions will buy these frozen carcasses, stuff them in their ovens, and, if all goes well, place the big bird in the center of their holiday tables. Then some poor sap will have to figure out how to carve up this unwieldy hunk of meat into something his relatives can eat. It is estimated that Americans will consume about 675 million pounds of turkey this Thanksgiving Day. Slightly less will be consumed for the several days after Thanksgiving, as creative chefs try and figure out how to get people to eat the leftover turkey in the refrigerator. While turkey may be the star, the real star of that first Thanksgiving was the yam.
Certainly turkey was likely part of the first Thanksgiving since turkeys had been a staple of the native American diet as far back as 1000 AD. Behind the turkey, the pumpkin is the second most popular Thanksgiving image. Not only do we include pumpkin pie as part of the traditional holiday meal, many people use pumpkins to decorate during the fall and Thanksgiving season. While pumpkins were certainly a staple in the diets of the North American peoples when the first European settlers arrived, there is no hard evidence that pumpkins were part of the first Thanksgiving feast. One item that was most certainly a part of the first Thanksgiving feast was the sweet potato.
The sweet potato is often called a yam, but botanically it is not a yam but rather a member of the morning glory family. The sweet potato is native to the New World and was widely consumed by native peoples when Columbus arrived. He first brought sweet potatoes to Europe from the island of St. Thomas. When the sweet potato arrive in Europe, Louis the XV and Empress Josephine developed a fondness for the new food sparking a brief period of European popularity.
Sweet potatoes were extremely popular with the native cultures of North and South America. They were easy to cultivate, could be cooked in a variety of ways, had outstanding nutrition, and could be stored for up to 6 months. According to legend, the Native Americans who celebrated with the Pilgrims, introduced them to the sweet potato which quickly became a staple of their diet and has been considered one of the reasons the colony survived.
The modern era of sweet potato production began in 1864 when George Washington Carver started experimenting with peanuts and sweet potatoes as a rotation crop on cotton ground. Farmers discovered these new crops did very well. By the turn of the 20th Century, sweet potato production was big business in southern states. In 1910, the U.S. Census Bureau’s agricultural statistics showed that there were more than 55,000 acres planted with sweet potatoes in the state of Louisiana. A bad crop of cotton turned farmers in south Louisiana to sweet potatoes as a cash crop in the 1930s. This marks the most significant period of increased popularity of sweet potatoes, as the Louisiana product became known in the nation’s markets. By the 1940s, the average American consumed over 20 pounds of sweet potatoes a year. Today per capita consumption is under 4 pounds.
As we become more health conscious consumers, sweet potatoes are making a comeback. Sweet potatoes contain almost no salt or fat and are high in beta-carotene and vitamin A. They have been rated as 100 times more nutritious than an Idaho potato.
As the sweet potato is making a comeback, many restaurants are offering baked sweet potatoes as an alternative to white potatoes. Even some fast food chains are offering sweet potato fries. So, this Thanksgiving, make sure sweet potatoes are on the table, along with the Turkey and pumpkin pie. It history and heritage make the sweet potato part of our Thanksgiving Day tradition.
By Gary Truitt