The long and winding journey of the South’s favorite tuber
A warning, in case you ever decide to observe a sweet potato harvest: There are more than a few ways you might get killed. This occurred to me one September morning as I jumped out of the way of a speeding forklift. The driver, his vision blocked by a full crate of sweet potatoes, didn’t have time to watch for dim-witted journalists.
To my untrained eye, the fields were chaos. A fleet of thirteen tractors dragged mobile platforms—“diggers,” they’re called—on which workers stood, hand-sorting the potatoes that were carried from the field by conveyor belts. More men scurried behind the diggers, making sure no worthy potato was missed. Full crates were forklifted onto truck beds. All kinds of heavy equipment weaved willy-nilly across the fields, always seeming to want to be where I was standing. I’ve learned enough about sweet potatoes, though, to know that someone, somewhere, was overseeing this chaos with a plan.
I was in Vardaman, Mississippi—the self-declared Sweet Potato Capital of the World—to try to understand a quintessentially Southern crop. Though to call it just Southern would do it a disservice: The sweet potato has, from its beginnings, been a food that’s wrapped itself around the world.
That harvest-day chaos was just one step in a long voyage, one that had begun in March. That’s when “seed potatoes”—not actual seeds, but undersized potatoes saved from the previous crop—were planted in rows. The rows were covered with plastic to hold heat in the ground until they began to sprout.
The first time I visited Vardaman, in late May, I watched a squad of laborers cutting down those sprouts. These—farmers call them “slips”—were fed into mechanical planters, which set them into ridges in the field. In ninety days, if all went well, from those slips would emerge a bumper crop of sweet potatoes.
“A sweet potato is very resilient,” Jan Cook Houston, whose mother helped found local bakery Sweet Potato Sweets, tells me. “It likes hot weather. It can grow in dry weather.” The only trouble for a sweet potato is if it gets too wet. A few years ago, Houston’s father, who farms 120 acres near Vardaman, lost three-quarters of his crop to rain.
Its relative resilience has made the sweet potato a lifeline for Southerners in tough times, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. In 1840, a traveler passed through Mississippi and found that it was the only crop that many of the region’s hardscrabble pig-and-cattle farmers grew. They roasted sweet potatoes to eat with wild turkey, mashed them for pies, dried them to brew coffee, and fermented them to make beer. There was so much of the crop that the traveler dreamt he’d become a potato and someone was digging him up.
“The sweet potato is what you eat when you grow your own food,” says April McGreger, a Vardaman native who has written a cookbook and history of the crop beloved in her hometown. But a century ago, the sweet potato was a national obsession: In 1920, the average American ate thirty-one pounds annually (compared with seven and a half pounds today).
Why, then, the distinctly Southern reputation? It’s in part because the crop requires a warm climate. Today, Southern sweet potato production is centered in Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina. (Mississippi is actually the fourth-place producer—California comes in second, behind North Carolina—and Vardaman’s claim to “world capital” status rests on how the economy of this small town of 1,300 is dominated by the plant.)
But it’s also because of African-American foodways—a history that explains, too, the use of the misnomer “yams.” Yams are big, hairy tubers with white flesh, and are an essential part of West African cooking. For enslaved Africans brought to America, the sweet potato was the next best thing to a familiar food. For years, a “yam” roasted among the coals of a fire was a standard meal for a Southern farm laborer. (The name became so well-lodged that now the USDA allows sweet potatoes to be marketed as yams, so long as they are also accurately labeled.)
The tale of the Southern sweet potato could be said to start in mid-seventeenth century Virginia, when colonists planted their first crop. The sweet potato—then called just the “potato,” since its white-fleshed rival was almost unknown in the early colonies—was a European sensation, a superfood long before that term was coined. One compendium of plants published in England in 1597 claimed that the sweet potato “comforts, strengthens, and nourishes the body”—and also inspires “bodily lusts.” King Henry VIII was a famous fan, especially of spiced sweet potato tarts, perhaps because of those aphrodisiacal qualities.
But those Virginian planters were actually taking potatoes back to native soil. Sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, and have been cultivated in Peru for at least 2,000 years. Christopher Columbus had carried a load to Europe after his fourth American voyage. For many in Europe, then, the sweet potato was among their first tastes of the so-called New World. (The white potato also came, via Spanish explorers, from South America—but four decades later.)
Columbus was not the only voyager to admire the crop. When Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand in 1769, his crew found sweet potatoes flourishing. Evidence shows that the crop beat Europeans to Polynesia by thousands of years, likely brought there by Polynesian expeditions that had sailed across the Pacific to Peru and back.
Sweet potatoes reached China by the end of the sixteenth century—a full fifty years before they came to Virginia—where they served as an essential food source when other crops failed. Over the next two hundred years, they spread across Asia, and now appear in many traditional dishes—boiled, steamed, roasted, served with coconut milk, incorporated into ginger-seasoned soups, turned into noodles, even liquor. Today, in fact, China is by far the world’s leading producer of sweet potatoes— making up 80 percent of the world’s supply— followed by a long list of Asian and African nations. The US, the largest producer in the Americas, sits in eighth place, producing less than one percent of the global haul. Once a New World crop, the sweet potato has taken over the world.
The summer of 2017 turned out to be an average growing season in Mississippi, with heavy August rains. The future, though, looks good: Sweet potato consumption is on a rapid rise, nearly doubling in the last seventeen years, as Americans gobble up nutritious and natural foods.
After the harvest, I followed the sweet potatoes from the field to the packing plant at Topashaw Farms, which is the largest such facility in Vardaman. The scene made the chaos of the field seem calm: Here, an endless procession of sweet potatoes bounced atop a labyrinth of clattering mechanical ramps and shoots. Workers stood on catwalks, rinsing and sorting and slicing away flaws. Potatoes piled into boxes; boxes were stacked on pallets; pallets were whisked into the waiting beds of eighteen-wheelers.
Here is the beating heart of the sweet potato machine. Before a sweet potato is sold, it must first be “cured”—stored in hot and humid conditions for at least a week. This deepens flavors and sets the skin, as well as heals any wounds from the rigors of harvest. Once cured, a sweet potato can keep for a year—meaning that when the trucks pull up to Topashaw, there are plenty of potatoes to be sent out into the great beyond. (I saw on the shipping list that trucks were bound for Indiana and Wisconsin— impressive, though perhaps a Polynesian sweet potato deliveryman might scoff.)
The sweet potato industry is actually relatively new to Vardaman. For years, this was cotton country, but around 1915 a few farmers found that sweet potatoes grew well, too. By the mid-twentieth century, the crop had come to dominate the surrounding fields.
That’s led to changes in town. Since sweet potatoes bruise easily during harvest, much of the work is done by hand, often by immigrants. Nearly a third of the town’s residents are now Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from Mexico. The old downtown has two grocery stores that specialize in imported products and a restaurant that advertises, in Spanish, its Sunday sales of tripe stew.
There’s a chance that when you sit down to your Southern sweet potato pie this Thanksgiving, Vardaman is where your tubers originated. It’s worth remembering that the Southern sweet potato pie on your Thanksgiving table required a thousand journeys—transoceanic explorers, immigrant fieldworkers, interstate truck drivers, and dangerous forklifts—before it arrived. Vardaman is one of many hubs across the South that participated in that journey. When you look close, they offer a lesson: it’s a big world we live in, and with every bite it becomes a part of us.