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SWEET POTATOES

November 2, 2014

Last week Clare and I paid a visit to Strawberry Hill at Cooley Springs in the Upstate of South Carolina. As usual, James Cooley’s place of business was hopping. Pumpkins of every shape, size, and color were on display, along with several varieties of apples, pears, assorted jams and jellies, hot cider, and boiled peanuts.

I had the opportunity to speak to James, and I complimented him on the festive appearance of the peach shed.

“Yeah,” he said, “Our daughter Brandi does a good job decorating. I turned that part over to her.”

I stepped back to admire view. Dried corn stalks and bales of hay served as the backdrop.  Clusters of Indian corn and groupings of fall mums were mixed among the produce. The roadside stand was a feast for the eyes.

In the midst of the autumn colors were piles of brown sweet potatoes as dirty as the soil from which they were dug. Nearly all the customers, including Clare, grabbed a bag and selected some of the rough tubers. The piles were marked with large cardboard signs with one word written in rustic red letters – TATERS.

Clare picked out a few of the sweet potatoes. Two days later we had five of our grandchildren in our home. We all enjoy warm sweet potatoes with butter.

In the world of superfoods sweet potatoes are rising stars. The orange flesh is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, both powerful antioxidants. This starchy vegetable can be enjoyed any time of year. In the South, sweet potatoes are abundant from September through December. At our house the versatile vegetable makes the perfect companion to a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham.

Sweet potatoes come in many varieties. The skin color can range from red to purple, yellow, brown, or white. The flesh also ranges in color from white or yellow to a dark orange. The peel is thin and edible. It is the orange-fleshed varieties that are most common and most often called yams.

Ask for yams in most any grocery store, and you’re likely to be directed to sweet potatoes. Though yams and sweet potatoes are considered first cousins, they are not related botanically.

True yams are native to Africa and parts of Asia. They may be the size of a small potato or grow to be several feet long. The skin on most varieties of yams is thick, rough, and somewhat like bark. When cooked, they are generally drier, starchier, and less sweet than sweet potatoes. The confusion started in the South. Slaves who had been brought from Africa called sweet potatoes nyami because of their resemblance to the familiar root crop which was a staple in Africa.

At James Cooley’s peach shed last week, I picked up a sweet potato and examined it. This simple vegetable was responsible for my family’s survival.

My grandfather and grandmother, Pappy and Mammy, had eight children when the Great Depression hit.  Pappy was running what he called a one-horse lumberyard on East Henry Street. The family had moved to Spartanburg from Greenville in 1923. My dad was two years old at the time. Pappy started the lumberyard with his life’s savings. Eventually, he was able to build a beautiful brick home out on the Greenville Highway where the pavement ended.  

During the Depression “times were hard and things were bad,” to quote Johnny Cash. One of the first areas to suffer at the beginning of an economic downturn is the construction industry.  It is also one of the last to recover.  Building homes and even making home repairs are postponed when the country experiences a depressed economy.  

Pappy struggled to make ends meet.  Determined to save the lumberyard, he mortgaged the business and then his home to put more money into the lumberyard.  Politicians kept saying that prosperity was just around the corner.  Finally, Pappy lost both the lumberyard and the family home.

Pappy and Mammy moved to a house that is still standing across the road from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs.  The gray Victorian house features contrasting white gingerbread work around the outside.  Uncle Wesley, their ninth child, was born in that home.

My dad, then eleven years old, raised turkeys. Mammy’s goat and cow provided dairy products for the family. Pappy planted a large garden and farmed the land where Mountainview Nursing Home now stands.

The chain gang mule Pappy bought at auction near Dutchman’s Fork for fifteen dollars had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. Dick, as the mule was called, had worn a harness so often that trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides. Pappy applied Bluestone Salve to the mule’s wounds. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent plow mule.

Pappy decided to raise sweet potatoes to sell and to serve as a staple food for his large family. He knew the market and knew the tubers could be stored easily. Though he had grown them in a garden, he knew nothing about planting sweet potatoes commercially. As he had always done before, Pappy plowed the ground, cut the furrows, and planted the potato slips in the rows.

Neighbors just laughed at Pappy, advising, “You’ll never make any taters planting them in the valleys like that. You’ll have nothing but vines. Taters have to be planted on the hills.”

A long, hot dry summer followed. Most farmers who had planted sweet potatoes had a poor harvest. That fall, however, Pappy turned the furrows where he had planted the potato slips. The valleys had gotten enough water: the hills did not. Pappy and his children harvested a bumper crop.

Pappy walked across Highway 56 to the School for the Deaf and Blind and struck an agreement with the superintendent, Dr. W. L. Walker. For a set price Pappy would provide all of the sweet potatoes and turkeys the school needed for the coming year. With the annual renewal of the contract, the income helped to sustain the family throughout the Depression.

 A Neely family legend holds that Mammy, of necessity, often prepared sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal. Sweet potato soufflé, candied yams, and baked sweet potatoes were standard fare. Sweet potato biscuits, bread, and rolls were Mammy’s specialties. Sweet potato pie was a common dessert. When the children came home from school and needed a snack, they usually ate a cold, leftover sweet potato. Mammy just didn’t have much else to serve her family.

Even after the Depression, sweet potatoes were usually on Mammy’s table. Uncle Buzz called them Depression taters. He said he had eaten enough to do him a lifetime. He steadfastly declared that he would never eat another sweet potato.

For the rest of his life, Uncle Buzz remained true to his word!

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