Yams label

Crate label
Image: St. Tammany

A sweet potato and a yam are about as related to each other as I was to “uncle�? Rob whom my Aunt Deloris brought home one night. But for reasons either deeply cosmic or profoundly marketable, the difference between yams and sweet potatoes has become complicated. I’ll be the first to admit that this is not rural America’s most pressing issue but, listen, anything that tastes as good with cornbread and fresh off-the-vine black eyed peas deserves more understanding.

Here are some of the reasons we’re confused. A sweet potato is not a potato; it’s a thick root (like a dahlia flower grows from) and related to the morning glory. A yam, though it grows underground, is not a root but a tuber (really an underground stem) and of course potatoes are tubers also. If this isn’t confusing enough, Louisiana sweet potato growers decided to name their sweetest and most popular sweet potato the “Louisiana Yam.�?

Sweet Potatoes are believed to have been domesticated about 5,000 years ago in the tropical regions of the Americas ““ probably Central America, but who can remember? The true Yam was cultivated about 8,000 years ago in Africa and Asia. Yams can grow to reach a weight of 150 lbs. If you ever see a 150 pound sweet potato ““ run!

big yam in Tonga

A farmer in Tonga shows off a prize-winning yam
Photo: James Foster, via wiki

My home state of North Carolina is the leading producer of sweet potatoes in the nation, and the NC Sweet Potato Commission has no hesitation in calling them what they are ““ sweet potatoes. I dare you to find “yam�? on their website. Besides, have you ever had anyone offer you a piece of yam pie? Of course not. The USDA now requires any false labeling of yams to indicate that it is actually a sweet potato. So Louisiana needs to get with the program.

What makes it really easy to distinguish between a sweet potato and a yam is the fact that if you live in the U.S., unless you shop in some specialty international market in New York or San Francisco, you’ve probably never seen a yam. You won’t find one in your neighborhood Piggly Wiggly, I guarantee. They are very rare in this country and it’s probably just as well, because sweet potatoes are more nutritious, providing you eat them without marshmallows. And even without the marshmallows, sweet potatoes are sweeter than yams.

To be fair to yams, they do posses a curative quality unmatched by the sweet potato. Some of you not afflicted with a Y chromosome may have ingested yam: more than 60,000 tons of yams are imported into the US annually for use in birth control pills. You can also purchase extracts of yams in tablet form that supposedly prevent ovulation. They are marketed as a “natural” method of birth control but if you really are concerned about pregnancy, you would be safer to try the always effective natural oral contraceptive “Not tonight dear.�? Just make sure to follow this stringent contraceptive with “But I could do with some sweet potato pie.�?

Editor’s Note:

Chuck’s article made us hungry, so we tracked down a recipe from Tony Chachere’s Cajun County Cookbook. Many of Tony’s recipes call for “Yams�? but not this one.

yam tango

Swingin’ with a Louisiana yam
Via: Barrett Manor

Orange Candied Sweet Potatoes

6 medium sized sweet potatoes
1 cup orange juice
½ teaspoon grated orange rind
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
¼ cup butter
½ teaspoon salt

Peel and slice uncooked potatoes in ¼ inclh slices and arrange in a buttered baking dish. Make a syrap of the ingredients and pour over the potatoes. Cover and bake in a moderate oven until tender. Baste occasionally. Remove lid the last ten minutes and allow to brown. If desired, a layer of mashmallows may be added and browned just before removing from the oven. (Serves 6)

We urge our North Carolina readers ““ others too — to send in a sweet potato (or yam) recipe.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.