The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a root that comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Its flavor is largely based on starch and sugar. The plant originated in the tropical areas of Central America and northwestern South America. The earliest archaeological evidence for sweet potato dates to about 5,000 years ago, but domestication is thought to have occurred 5,000 years earlier.
In pre-Columbian times, sweet potatoes were disseminated throughout much of South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. They were likely grown in southern Florida in pre-Columbian times by Caribbean Indians. Spanish explorers in the Caribbean ran across sweet potatoes and called them by their Taino name, batatas. The Spanish shipped them back to Europe, where they became a sensation. They were among the earliest New World foods adopted in Europe. At about the same time, the Portuguese encountered sweet potatoes in Brazil and transported them to Africa, where they were grown to provision Portuguese ships headed to and from Asia and slave ships headed to the New World. These two actions have caused two linguistic imbroglios. The first is with the white potato (Solanum tuberosa), which the Spanish encountered in South America in 1529. They called the white potato batata and later patata, which has led to confusion with the sweet potato ever since. The second confusion is between the sweet potato and the yam (Dioscorea), another large tuberous root of which many varieties were native to tropical regions of the Old World. Varieties of sweet potatoes and yams are similar in appearance, and sweet potatoes in the United States are frequently misidentified as yams.
Although sweet potatoes were not cultivated in England as a commercial crop, the British esteemed them in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sweet potatoes were imported from Spain and Portugal and became popular, in large part due to their purported aphrodisiacal qualities, as noted by Shakespeare in the Merry Wives of Windsor.
Both the cassava and the sweet potato provisioned slave ships. Richard Hawkins reported in 1593 that a Portuguese slave ship from Angola headed to Brazil was supplied with cassava. Eight years later the botanist Carolus Clusius reported that the Portuguese fed sweet potatoes to slaves transported to Lisbon from the island of São Thomé off the African coast.
Sweet potatoes were also introduced into America through the slave trade. They were grown extensively in the South during the colonial period. William Strachey, an English visitor to America, reported in 1612 that sweet potatoes in Virginia were “as big as a Boy's Leg, and sometimes about as long and as big as both the Leg and Thigh of a young Child, and very much resembling it in shape” (Wright and Freund 1967, 130). By 1724, slaves were fed on sweet potatoes, corn pone, mush, and pulses. In 1736 a Dr. Mortimer claimed that sweet potatoes were consumed by both whites and African Americans. Sweet potatoes were a favorite in the South well before 1800, but they remained a luxury in the North until the 1830s.
According to Edward Long, the sweet potato “provided negroes with nourishing food, which the slaves prepared in many ways, such as pounding into a pudding or ‘pone,’ which is then baked or boiled.” Sweet potatoes were also mashed and fermented, “from which they make a pleasant cool drink, called mobby; and distilled affords an excellent spirit. They also make an excellent bread mixed with flour, for this purpose they are boiled till they begin to crack, or the skins peel off readily; they are then peeled and bruised while they are hot in a mortar, till not a lump remains in them” (Long 1774, 774).
Sweet potatoes, cassava, maize, and a few other plants were “the principal part of the Negroes's diet, in the Southern States, and … each Negro is allowed a peck in a week for his subsistence,” one observer reported (Stearns 1801, 186). In addition, migrations of whites and their slaves from the British West Indies to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia began in the mid-17th century, and they may well have also brought sweet potatoes with them. They were grown extensively in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. From a culinary standpoint, sweet potatoes were extremely versatile. They can be boiled, broiled, baked, roasted, fried, stewed, and mashed. The orange and yellow varieties can be eaten raw by grating them into a salad. Sweet potato has been employed as an ingredient in pies, breads, and puddings. Sweet potatoes can be juiced and made into a drink and can also be fermented and converted into an alcoholic beverage. In the United States, sweet potatoes are served with a variety of different foods, and they are favorites at Thanksgiving, particularly in the South. Recently, sweet potatoes have been made into fries.
Sweet potatoes are highly nutritious. They are high in complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins A and C, calcium, folic acid, magnesium, and potassium and contain some protein. Sweet potatoes are grown throughout tropical areas and today are one of the most important root tubers in the world. In the United States, North Carolina, Louisiana, and California produce three-fourths of the sweet potato crop.
See also Carver, George Washington; Colonial Food; Potatoes; Southern Food; Thanksgiving
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