National Sweet Potato Day – 22 February
Some claim that sweet potatoes have been hiding under the bushel basket of holiday meals long enough. They have a wonderful flavor and are readily available all year, so why not enjoy them more often? National Cook a Sweet Potato Day is celebrated, perhaps rightly so, on February 22nd of every year as they have become the 6th most important crop in the world.
Like so many foods originating in the Americas, it was taken to Europe by the Spaniards, but not before sweet potatoes had reached Easter Island and Hawaii in the 1200s — 300 years before Columbus – DNA has proven that. Perhaps Polynesians grabbed them as they returned from visiting South America. Incidentally, a few of their chickens must have escaped their canoes and were left in South America because their bones are baffling modern researchers today. It seems dating shows they preclude Columbus having brought chickens from Spain. Always remember history is written by those who survive, but now science is challenging much of what we thought we once knew. Then, when sweet potatoes reached Africa, the natives called them “yams;” a misnomer, as the true yam is a very different plant and is a starchy tuber while a sweet potato is truly a sweet root vegetable. Hence calling them yams is simply wrong, yet many Americans do.
Perhaps of more consequence to us is whether sweet potatoes made it to the Rhineland before Meusebach left with the first settlers for Texas. That remains questionable, but our early settlers adopted all things American, and I grew up relishing the day my mom made her sweet potato casserole — the only way I ever remember them being served. Maybe some of you remember Mrs. Thiele over on Thiele Lane off Highway Street. She used to babysit Case when he was little – small miracle Judy Fischer could find someone to take him on as he was quite a handful. They had a full garden and a cute hand drawn sign advertising sweet potatoes for sale for many years.
Sweet potatoes have been a part of the American diet for most of the history of our country. Even George Washington grew them at Mount Vernon. Still, our average consumption fell to an average of only 3 ½ pounds annually recently — down from the days of our parents who consumed 29 lbs., or slightly more than ½ a bushel each, annually in the 1920s. Today sweet potatoes are coming back into fashion as more of their health benefits are being touted.
How sweet potatoes, and even potatoes, were preserved in historic times may be of interest to you. Perhaps some readers can remember when smoke houses had dirt floors and bins of sand in them — usually in one corner. Here Irish potatoes could be stored covered with dry sand until ready for cooking. The same applied to sweet potatoes. Today, even without a smokehouse, one must exercise care in their storage. Never, ever, refrigerate sweet potatoes as that ruins their sweet flavor, and never wash them until ready for use. Washing exposes their vulnerable skin and causes them to begin spoiling. Do remove them from any plastic bags in which they were bought as soon as possible, and perhaps display them proudly as a center piece on your kitchen table. Sweet potatoes are traditionally cured to improve storage, flavor, and nutrition, and to allow wounds on the periderm of the harvested root to heal. Proper curing requires freshly dug roots to dry on the ground for 2 to 3 hours, then stored at 85-90º F at a high humidity from 5 days to two weeks. They can then keep for 13 months when stored properly. Their orange flesh obviously indicates that they are high in beta-carotene. Our early settlers quickly caught on to their beneficial aspects and high yields. In their early gardens they required less care by crowing out much of their competition, and by properly storing them they offered food throughout long winters.
Obviously, they can be prepared dozens of different ways — even mashed, but my mom seemed to like using them in making casseroles; perhaps because they could easily be baked to perfection. Her casseroles consisted of dozens of hexagonally shaped slices arranged in no specific pattern in her Pyrex dish. Their distinct hexagonal-like shape strongly suggested they had not been peeled with a potato peeler.
Candied Sweet Potato Casserole
5 medium sweet potatoes
10 oz small marshmallows
4 lbs whole butter
½ cup brown sugar
3 tbsp orange juice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Peel and slice sweet potatoes into 1/8 to ¼ –discs.
Arrange in an overlapping layer on the bottom of a Pyrex dish until completely covered.
Distribute the marshmallows across the pan.
In a small saucepan, add orange juice, butter, and maple syrup.
Bring to a medium heat and stir until butter is melted and all ingredients are well combined.
Pour over the layered sweet potatoes.
In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, salt, and chopped pecans, then sprinkle over the top of the casserole.
Bake at 400º F on the center rack uncovered for 25 minutes or until sweet potatoes are fork-tender.
Baste from time to time by spooning some of the liquid over the sweet potatoes.
Top should be lightly browned. Remove and cool 5 minutes before serving.