“I yam what I yam” flows more trippingly from the tongue than “I sweet potato what I sweet potato,” but if you’re in the U.S.A., chances are your yam ain’t really yamming.
Yams don’t grow in the United States. Sweet potatoes do. If you find a real yam in an ethnic grocery, it was likely grown in some foreign country. But if you’re digging up dinner in your back yard, I can pretty much guarantee that you’re digging up a sweet potato.
Sweet potatoes and candied yams
I’m from the South, where sweet potatoes are inevitable. My Aunt Prue used to make mashed sweet potatoes every Thanksgiving with browned marshmallows on top, and no holiday party spread was complete without at least one sweet potato pie. These were always made with those sweet potatoes that had the rich, dark orange flesh that just screamed beta-carotene and good-tasting health—the ones that people mistakenly call “yams.”
Now I’m the first to admit that I love the word “yam.” So easy to say, just one little syllable. And for me, brevity is the entire appeal to this dark shadow of misnamed vegetable.
But the more I learn about this amazing vegetable, the more I resent the misappropriation of the word “yam.” It creates more confusion than it solves.
We did an informal survey on a posted sweet potato photo, and asked our social media friends and followers whether they’d call it a sweet potato or a yam. The response was almost overwhelmingly “sweet potato.” (One person insisted that it only became a yam once cooked, and then only if it were candied. I agree.)
How sweet potatoes got misnamed
So what then is at the root of this misnomer? According to The Library of Congress Science Reference Department:
“In the United States, firm varieties of sweet potatoes were produced before soft varieties. When soft varieties were first grown commercially, there was a need to differentiate between the two. African slaves had already been calling the ‘soft’ sweet potatoes ‘yams’ because they resembled the yams in Africa. Thus, ‘soft’ sweet potatoes were referred to as ‘yams’ to distinguish them from the ‘firm’ varieties.
“Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels with the term ‘yam’ to be accompanied by the term ‘sweet potato.”
Originally cultivated in South America, the indigenous label for the sweet potato was batata. When batatas were brought to North America for cultivation, the name was close to the Irish “potato.” Like potatoes, they grew underground. So folks called them “sweet” potatoes to differentiate.
It disheartens me that this magnificent food source that grows with minimal care and volunteers back freely, that can feed us so heartily with both root and leaf, has suffered such indignities in having to repeatedly borrow its name from other plants.
Life in general and grocery shopping specifically would be simpler if we all just went back to calling them “batatas.” Probably not gonna happen. Now, however, armed with all this knowledge, I hope I speak for all of us when I say that can never again in good conscience call them yams. No more yams.
¡Viva las batatas!
– Su Falcon
Editor in Chief, The Dirt on Organic Gardening Magazine
To learn more about sweet potatoes in all their glory, see Issue 20 of The Dirt.