The Food Almanac: Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's Sweet Potato Day!
Sweet Potato

Sweet Potato


In The Food Almanac, Tom Fitzmorris of the online newsletter The New Orleans Menu notes food facts and sayings.

Days Until. . . 
New Year's Eve--13

Today's Flavor
Today is Sweet Potato Day. Sweet potatoes are essential to the holiday table, but we never get tired of eating them down here in Lousiana. Not do they taste good with Creole and Cajun food, but they're a major local crop. Louisiana sweet potatoes are the standard of the business, like Vermont maple syrup, Idaho potatoes, and California artichokes.

Sweet potatoes are the roots of a vine related to the morning glory. They have thin, reddish brown skins and the soft, orange insides, with a substantial sweetness. All varieties of sweet potatoes are New World vegetables, and have been cultivated in the Americas for as long as five thousand years. Columbus ate them on his first voyage. They're widely but inaccurately called yams. The true yam is an unrelated, larger, harder, starchier African root, popular in the Caribbean. But even in Africa the sweet potato is replacing the true yam, simply because it tastes better. 

Most sweet potatoes are harvested in mid-summer to early fall. This has no effect on their goodness or availability, because they can be stored for months. (Indeed, storage seems to help the flavor.) Sweet potatoes are good both in savory dishes (baked, mashed, or fried) or desserts. The line is frequently crossed; most mashed sweet potatoes are made too sweet, with extra sugar and molasses and the like. On the other hand, you can add more spices--cinnamon, nutmeg, even a little cardamom.

My time favorite use of sweet potatoes is something I grew up with. When my mother made chicken gumbo, she also baked sweet potatoes, and we ate the two together. Dig out a half-spoon of sweet potato, then dunk the spoon right into the gumbo. 

Sweet potatoes have become much more common in restaurants, largely because they can be substituted for white potatoes by people on low-carb diets. Give me the spicy, soft ones with the butter and cinnamon. Preferably in the company of a slow-roasted duck.

Celebrity Chefs Today
Today is the birthday, in 1935, of French chef Jacques Pepin. He was one of the first real chefs to become a media presence, appearing frequently on television, writing columns in food magazines, and more than a few books. Although they seem dated in their style--the chef-superstar industry has come a long way since the 1970s--his recipes and explanations remain excellent. Pepin's books are well worth owning. My favorite is La Technique, which I keep within reachof my right hand.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
Inside my oven
A yam was weeping
I shouldn't have forked it around.

Next time gently
With tongs I'll remove it
Puffed skin, but safe and sound.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Sweet Potato Island is about in the dead center of Maine, ninety-one miles north of Bangor. This is the hilly, glacier-scraped, lake-riddled, heavily forested part of the state, as much a wilderness as almost any other place in the contiguous forty-eight. The island is in Lower Jo-Mary Lake, and is itself completely covered with trees. You can only get to the lake by a four-wheel-drive track. It's nineteen miles back to the town of Millinocket, where is found the nearest restaurant: the Appalachian Trail Cafe.

Edible Dictionary
yam, n.--In Louisiana and other parts of America, "yam" means the sweet potato we grow here and eat with holiday dinners. But that's not strictly correct. The sweet potato is not related even distantly to a true yam. That's a root vegetable, genus Dioscorea, that originally grew from Africa through Asia. Its roots are much thicker, yellower, and less sweet than the sweet potato. It also contains bitter elements that need to be cooked out. The roots burrow deep into the soil, and they're hard to harvest. People usually ate them only when there was nothing else. The Africans brought them to the Caribbean, where they remain popular. If you ever encounter true yams, they'll probably be involved in a dish with Caribbean roots (no pun intended).

Deft Dining Rule #22:
No place in the world has all the food of all the world. If you have looked in vain for a certain foodstuff or dish where you live, it may well mean that you will have to travel elsewhere to find it. For example, peirogies in New Orleans or crawfish etouffee in Poland.

Food In Dance
This is the day in 1892 when Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker first was performed, in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was amazed the first time I saw it that it was really about a nutcracker. I've been trying to find a performance of The Nutcracker to attend somewhere around town, but I can't seem to.

Food Around The World
Today in 1642, Dutchman Abel Tasman (the man for whom Tasmania is named) landed his ship on New Zealand, the first European to do so. New Zealand is so far away that it took a long time for its food products to appear in our market. But they're all over the place now. Most racks of lamb served in New Orleans restaurants are from New Zealand. They're smaller and more strongly flavored than American lamb, and not quite as good, but much less expensive--which explains why restaurants and home cooks like them so much. New Zealand wines have also become common; the country makes the world's best Sauvignon Blanc, overall, and many other good wines, too. And while the kiwi fruit didn't come from there, it was New Zealand that renamed it for its unique native bird (from "Chinese gooseberry") and made it popular.

Food Namesakes
Early baseball superstar Ty Cobb (whose nickname The Georgia Peach was also a food name) was born today in 1886. . . British playwright Christopher Fry was born today in 1907. . . John Stout Snook, who has a rare food and beverage name (a snook is a great eating fish, popular in Florida) was born today in 1862. He was a U.S. Congressman from Ohio. 

The Burma-born English writer Hector Hugh Munro, whose pen name was Saki, was born today in 1870. He wrote amusing books about British society. In addition to the homophone with the Japanese rice wine, Saki also had a dish named for him at the extinct but fondly remembered New Orleans restaurant the Caribbean Room, in the Pontchartrain Hotel.

Words To Eat By
"I saw him even now going the way of all flesh, that is to say towards the kitchen."--John Webster,British writer, born today in 1580.

Words To Drink By 
"Passing the vodka bottle."--Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, born today in 1943. He was explaining how he manages to keep going.