A Sweet Potato History

The inspiration for this post comes from a reader’s comment about wanting more information about the origin of “candied” yams.

Here is what I learned…

 Whether you boil and drizzle with molasses or mash and top with marshmallows, sweet potatoes* have become a staple at Thanksgiving tables.

 Did you know that sweet potatoes were cultivated and consumed before the white (Irish) potato?

 The earliest cultivation records of the sweet potato date to 750 BCE in Peru, although archeological evidence shows culivation of the sweet potato might have begun around 2500-1850 BCE.  By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the ‘New World’ in the late 15th century, sweet potatoes were well established as food plants in South and Central America.

Sweet Potato from John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597)

Columbus brought sweet potatoes back to Spain, introducing them to the taste buds and gardens of Europe. Europeans referred to the sweet potato as the potato, which often leads to confusion when searching for old sweet potato recipes. It wasn’t until after the 1740’s that the term sweet potato began to be used by American colonists to distinguish it from the white (Irish) potato.

England’s John Gerard wrote about the potato (sweet potato) in his 1597 Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. Along with a description of the plant, he also describes how it is eaten- roasted and infused with wine, boiled with prunes, or roasted with oil, vinegar, and salt. He also suggests that the sweet potato “comforts, strengthens, and nourishes the body,” as well as “procuring bodily lust.” This aphrodisiac quality could be the reason for its popularity in the upper classes of 16th century England.  It is suggested that Henry VIII consumed massive amounts of sweet potatoes, especially spiced sweet potato pie and Shakespeare’s Falstaff exclaims in the Merry of Wives of Windsor (1602) “Let the sky rain potatoes. Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves,’ hail kissing-comfits and snow eryngoes!”  A recipe  in John Murrell’s 1615 A New Booke of Cookery published in London A recipe in Thomas Dawson’s Book of Cookerie (1620, 1629) includes “A tarte to cause courage either in a man or woman” that uses potato [sweet potato].  

 But what about the candied sweet potato (aka candied yams)?

 Without a doubt, by 1880 Americans were enjoying some sort of variation of candied sweet potatoes. American cookbooks, such as the widely published 1893 Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer featured a recipe for glazed sweet potatoes. Likewise, in 1896 Texas Farm and Ranch published Sweet Potato Culture for Profit: A Full Account of the Origin,History and Botanical Characteristics of Sweet Potato , which included a recipe for glazed sweet potatoes. 

Around the same time, George Washington Carver compiled more than a hundred recipes for the vegetable. Carver’s recipes no. 9 and 10 discuss two different ways to make glacé sweet potatoes (glacé often refers to something that is sugared or candied). By the 1910’s candied sweet potato recipes were wide-ranging in the United States, appearing in Martha McCulloch-Williams 1919 Dishes from the Old South and Florence Greenbaum’s 1919 International Jewish Cookbook.

What about the marshmallows?

Neffsville, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Earle Landis taking Thanksgiving pies from the oven (FSA/OWI, 1942).

 Early sweet potato pudding recipes, such as the one found in the first American cookbook,American Cookery(1789 1796)  by Amelia Simmons features a recipe for potato pudding** that is similar to our contemporary recipe for candied sweet potato with marshmallows. It includes mashed sweet potatoes, milk, nutmeg, and egg whites. Eliza Leslie’s 1840 Directions for Cookery also gives instructions for a sweet potato pudding, calling for mashed sweet potatoes and milk, topped with egg whites, and baked in the oven.

One of the earliest published recipes that uses marshmallows was in a 1919 booklet from the Barrett Company on Sweet Potato and Yams, which suggests adding marshmallows to candied yams.**(Nov. 2012 Update- Saveur Magazine, Oct. 2011,  writes “ In 1917, the marketers of Angelus Marshmallows hired Janet McKenzie Hill, founder of the Boston Cooking School Magazine, to develop recipes for a booklet designed to encourage home cooks to embrace the candy as an everyday ingredient.” This booklet  contained “the first documented appearance of mashed sweet potatoes baked with a marshmallow topping.”)  A decade later, Ida C. Bailey Allen’s Vital Vegetables (1928) gives readers a browned sweet potatoes with marshmallows recipe.  

 Tracing the history of candied sweet potato/yam recipes was a challenge. It seems that this dish may have its origins in 16th century Europe. However, the predominance of references to candied (glazed, glacé) sweet potato recipes from 18th and 19th century cookbooks suggest that this delicacy stems from American recipes.

Updated 10/6/2012. Over the past two years I have been involved with more  in-depth research about the sweet potato. Based on this research the cultivated dates of the sweet potato in Peru should be 2500-1850 BCE due to archaeological evidence that has, more or less, been accepted by the community.  I am also asked for assistance in researching the history of the sweet potato. The following  articles and books are good places to start:

  • Cooley, J.S. The Sweet Potato: Its Origin Primitive Storage Practices. Economic Botany, v. 5, Oct- Dec, 1951: p 378-386.
  • Davidson, Alan. Sweet potato. In The Oxford companion to food.New York, Oxford University Press, c1999. p. 774-775.
  • Evolution of Crop Plants. Edited by J. Smartt and N.W. Simmonds (Harlow, Essex, England : Longman Scientific and Technical ; New York : Wiley, 1995):57-62.
  • Hancock, James. Plant evolution and the origin of crop species (Wallingford, Oxon, UK ; New York, NY : CABI Pub., c2004): 220-222.
  • Kiple, Kenneth F., and Kriemhild C. Ornelas, eds. Sweet potatoes and yams. In The Cambridge world history of food.New York, Cambridge University Press, c2000. p. 207-218.
  • O’Brien, Patricia J. The Sweet Potato: Its Origin and Dispersal. American Anthropologist, New Series, v. 74, June 1972: 342-365.
  • Ugent, Donald and Linda W. Peterson. Archaeological Remains of Potato and Sweet Potato in Peru. CIP Circular, v. 16, September 1988: 1-10.

* See post on Candied Yams or Candied Sweet Potatoes for use of the term sweet potato vs. yam

**Miss Simmons also suggests using potato or yams in a pumpkin recipe. Could this be early evidence of describing the sweet potato as a yam?

 ** Calling sweet potatoes yams was a way to distinguish the softer varieties of sweet potatoes from the mealier varieties- this 1919 booklet may give insight into the origins of the term Candied Yams.

 

23 Comments

  1. anna marie wyant
    November 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Love yams and the article. Very informative. Never knew they were one and the same.

  2. Alexandra
    December 1, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Fascinating! ;)

  3. Jack Kedzie
    January 4, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    mmmm. sweet potatoes. But is it only sweet potatoes that are from the New World? Is it true that white potatoes are also from there? I thought that’s why Europe’s population doubled a few hundred years ago, because it was such an awesome food source that suddenly came in.

  4. Jennifer Harbster
    January 5, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Yes, what we know of as the white potato (e.g. Irish) is a New World plant/food. It was a staple of the Incas of Peru and brought to Europe by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. According to the literature, the potato as a food product was slow to catch on in Europe- it was not until the late eighteenth century that the potato was well established in Europe. I think this topic deserves more attention. Keep your eye out for a blog post about the potato :)

  5. Joe Hopkins
    June 2, 2011 at 12:12 am

    You provide some very insightful and useful information on the history of Sweet Potatoes appearing in recipes through history. You mention that sweet potatoes appeared in “a recipe in John Murrell’s 1615 A New Booke of Cookery published in London “A tarte to prouoke [provoke] courage either in man or woman” uses Potaton roote [sweet potato].” Reviewing that cookbook at http://www.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/1615murr.htm I cannot locate a recipe by that title, though there is a recipe “A Marrow Toast” which has ‘potato-rootes’ as an ingredient. On Lynne Oliver’s Food Timeline website http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodpies.html#yamsandsweets a recipe is published from Thomas Dawson’s “Good Housewife’s Jewel” which has the title “To Make a Tart That Is Courage To A Man Or Woman” which is similar to the title you cite, and the recipe does include a potato, though the version shared on Ms Oliver’s site has been updated to modern English so it is unclear if the potato reference is to the sweet or white variety. My access to original sources is limited to what is available on the internet (or sometimes at my local library), but you have access to the huge collection available at the Library of Congress. Can you clarify, even share, the Murrell 1615 recipe, if that citation is correct? OR if the Dawson 1596 reference is correct, is your source in the more archaic English of that era, and if so, can you share that text?

  6. Jennifer Harbster
    June 3, 2011 at 11:31 am

    I pulled up a printed facismile of Murrell’s 1615 New booke of cookerie. For the life of me I cannot find the recipe. I always double check my resources, and now I am stumped. It appears that I mixed something up. Thank goodness you caught this. Where oh where did I get the info about Murrell’s cookbook? I will some more digging and get back to you

  7. Jennifer Harbster
    June 3, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    I am so happy you caught my mistake. I think I have tracked down why I mentioned Murrell’s New Booke of Cookerie- the recipe also appears in Thomas Dawson’s A Booke of Cookerie , pg. 84. Those darn 16/17th century multiple Booke of Cookerie titles! The sweet potato recipe is also in Thomas Dawson’s other cookbooks you mentioned. I will email you a copy of recipe for your reference. Again, thank you!

  8. Pam Tudor
    November 2, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Hello Jennifer, I am interested in learning more about the history of the sweet potato’s adoption by the early American colonist and Henry VIII’s love of this root. Could you kindly provide authoritative sources? Thank you.

  9. Jennifer Harbster
    November 3, 2011 at 9:59 am

    I can certainly point you to the material that I have found. However, I’d imagine there is a lot more material to uncover. I will email you the references under separate cover.

  10. Joe Hopkins
    September 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    I’m back – with another question. You mention that it was in the 1740s when the sweet began to precede potato to distinguish the sweet potato from the white potato. Do you have any citations, sources or references which indicate this. The OED says the first written reference to sweet potato was not until 1775, tho no citation there either.

    Also, I want to share with you this link: http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/ghj1596.txt Sam Wallace used 1594 and 1597 editions of Thomas Dawson’s to assemble his transcription, pushing back the date of the appearance of the “A tarte to cause courage either in a man or woman” recipe which first used sweet potatoes.

    Also you mention that Amelia Simmon’s cookbook “American Cookery” was published in 1789, I believe the 1st (and 2nd) editions were first published in 1796.

    This blog posting is one of the richest and densest sources of information on the recipe history of the sweet potato.

  11. Jennifer Harbster
    October 1, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you Joe! I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you writing in and fixing my mistakes. I changed the Simmons American Cookery date to 1796- I am not sure what happened there- to err is human, plus I have a stigmatism and I tend to transpose numbers.

    I have a folder full of sweet potato references. In the post I write “after the 1740′s”, not in the 1740’s. I imagine at the beginning of the 1750’s the distinction between white and sweet potato first began because of the increase popularity of the white Irish potato? I will look into some references for this.

    Also, thank you for bringing to my attention a translation of Dawson’s 1596 and 1597 editions of “The Good Huswifes Jewell” that contain the tarte to cause courage recipe. I will update the blog post with your findings.

  12. Jennifer Harbster
    October 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    As far as OED has currently traced back- the first identified written occurrence of sweet potato is the following : 1750 J. Birket Some Remarks Voy. N. Amer. 9 They have..abundance of..the Sweet Potatoe.
    By 1750 I imagine it was becoming more common to designate sweet from white potato thus this 1750 written account. I also imagine that this designation of sweet potato happened orally before it caught on and was published in Birket’s Some Remarks Voy. North America • 1750. That is, by the time Birket wrote the term sweet potato it was a more accepted term.

    I feel it is safe to say that the sweet potato designation began to be used after the 1740’s, rather than in the 1750’s. I like to keep it open. But as researchers, like you, continue to dig through the older and older material, we will certainly learn more about the history of the sweet potato.

  13. David
    November 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    If the concept for glazed sweet potatoes may have had its origins in 16th century Europe, why would you infer that the concept for glazed sweet potatoes originated in America because of the preponderance of recipes from 18th and 19th century cookbooks? Is it not possible that the concept for glazed sweet potatoes was brought to the United States by European immigrants?

  14. Jennifer Harbster
    November 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    @David. Without a doubt the history of candied sweet potato recipes can be researched in much more detail than what I have done in this blog post. I was able to identify 16th European recipes for sweet potatoes that included the use of additional sweeteners such as sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, dates, prunes, quince, and wine. This seems to be the beginning of making sweet potatoes even sweeter by the use of sugar and why I state that the idea of candied sweet potatoes has its origins in 16th century Europe. I also agree that European immigrants to the U.S. would have brought its cooking traditions to America. I believe that the popularization, and possibly the coining of the term, candied sweet potatoes may have originated in 19th century America by the evidence of such recipes in American cookbooks. I would imagine this is because American cooks had easy access to sweeteners such as maple syrup, cane sugar, and molasses, plus sweet potatoes were cultivated in the U.S. Their might be European candied sweet potato recipes that predate the 19th century American cookbooks- I just have not come across them. Also from the cookbook evidence, it appears that candied sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows originated in the U.S. I hope this helps to answer your questions.

  15. Susana Ojeda
    March 23, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    Hello Jennifer.
    It’s good to find this information. In these days, I’m doing a research about a sweet potato ‘cajeta’. This is the result of my interest and curiosity of knowing and reconstructing the old and well preserved traditions of my city Guanajuato. For these reasons, I wish to analyze the tradition of the production and consumption of s sweet potato cajeta and anise ‘pan de muertos’ which occurs around November 2nd, the Day of Dead in Mexico.
    I am enquiring as to the origins and development of this tradition, and all the broad social processes around these foods, including its meaning for the inhabitants of Guanajuato City. I consider this project a possible starting point for broaching an understanding of the present day society of the Guanajuato.

    IN RELATION WITH YOUR ARTICLE, I find very interesting to find the links between the migrations of people and the plants distributions. As Patricia O’ Brien says in the sinopsis of its book “Sweet Potatoes and Yams” ……:
    “The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas, Lam.) and the yams (genus Dioscorea) are root crops that today nurture millions of people within the world’s tropics. Moreover, they are plants whose origin and dispersals may help in an understanding of how humans manipulated and changed specific types of plants to bring them under cultivation. Finally, these cultivars are important as case studies in the diffusion of plant species as they moved around the world through contacts between different human populations. This chapter reviews the questions surrounding the early dispersals of these plants, in the case of the sweet potato from the New World to the Old, and in the case of yams their transfers within the Old World. In so doing, the sweet potato’s spread into Polynesia before European contact is documented, and the issue of its penetration into Melanesia (possibly in pre-Columbian times) and introduction into New Guinea is explored. Finally, the post-Columbian spread of the sweet potato into North America, China, Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa is covered. In addition, a discussion of the domestication and antiquity of two groups of yams, West African and Southeast Asian, is presented, and the spread of these plants is examined, especially the transfer of Southeast Asian varieties into Africa. (…) Primary evidence consists of physical plant remains in the form of charred tubers, seeds, pollen, phytoliths, or chemical residuals. Secondary evidence, which is always significantly weaker, involves the use of historical documents (dependent on the reliability of the observer), historical linguistics (often impossible to date), stylistically dated pictorial representations (subject to ambiguities of abstract representation), remanent terracing, ditches or irrigation systems (we cannot know which plants were grown), tools (not plant specific), and the modern distribution of these plants and their wild relatives (whose antiquity is unknown).”

    Well, all this is just a motivation for keep an eye in this..
    A question in particular is this:
    What information can you share with me about the sweet potato’s adoption by the early American colonist? When and how happened?

    Thank you, Saludos desde México!

  16. Colin Purrington
    November 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Calling sweet potatoes “yams” was a mistake that predates 1919, at least in writings I’m come across. E.g., this book from 1900:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=yzrOAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PA178&dq=yam+%22sweet+potatoes%22+negro&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hoWYUsDiIdLmoASZ7IGIBg&ved=0CHoQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=yam%20label&f=false

    I’d love for any information on why Louisiana markets sweet potatoes as yams even though North Carolina doesn’t. Any thoughts?

    I have compile my yam versus sweet potato thoughts here, if anyone is interested:

    http://colinpurrington.com/tips/home/yams-versus-sweet-potatoes/

    It’s a draft, and happy to make changes if anyone has suggestions.

  17. Colin Purrington
    December 1, 2013 at 10:32 am

    What I’d love to know is what George Washington called sweet potatoes. Since he farmed them AND had upwards of 300 slaves (who might use the term yam, right?), he might be in a position to be specific. Anyone know of resources where I could find this out?

  18. Jennifer Harbster
    December 2, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    Hi Colin. I will have to do some research to find you specific examples, but off the top of my head George Washington might have called sweet potatoes- simply potatoes. Sweet potatoes were more popular and consumed before the white potato. I imagine that sometime in the early 19th century a distinction between the white potato and sweet potato began? Washington planted potatoes- you can search his diaries at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html. Also, there is a recipe for Potato Pudding from the 1796 cookbook by Amelia Simmons that seems to be a recipe for the use of sweet potatoes, not white potatoes. I will get back to you with my finding next week. Cheers! Jennifer

  19. Jennifer Harbster
    December 2, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary one of the earliest use of the term sweet potato was in 1750- see J. Birket Some Remarks Voy. N. Amer. 9 They have..abundance of..the Sweet Potatoe http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000289109, pg. 9. It seems safe to say that by the 1800s folks stopped referring to the sweet potato as the potato.

  20. Jennifer Harbster
    December 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Hi Colin, Might want to check out these references for yams noted in the Oxford English Dictionary: 1803 J. Walker in Prize Ess. & Trans. Highland Soc. Scotl. 2 68 There is a demand for the large coarse varieties of potatoe, improperly called Yams.
    1805 R. Forsyth Beauties Scotl. II. 84 To give them [sc. horses]..a considerable quantity daily of potatoes, especially of the coarse sort, called yams.
    Note: these are publications from Scotland, not United States.

  21. Jennifer Harbster
    December 16, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Hi Colin, I am emailing you more references, but thought I should share it in this comment for future researchers. The Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture cited from Google Books was published in 1904. However, the information was extracted from the Farmer’s Bulletin, no. 129 which was published in 1901. I rec’d taking a look at the original source (Farmer’s Bulletin, no. 129) since there might be more information in the bulletin than in the Kansas Report.

  22. Jennifer Harbster
    December 16, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    According to the Diary entries of George Washington- our first President called them Sweet Potatoes- see Oct. 1787 Wed. 17th “The Sweet Potatoes made at Muddy hole from the half Acre of experimental ground are as follow…” and June 1788 Wed. 11th “That the Muddy hole hands this day (Wednesday) had wed the Pumpkins & Sweet Potatoes.” It should be noted that he may have also called them simply ‘potatoes” since there are many occurrences of this word in his diaries (without an indication of it being Irish/white). There are instances of him specifying Irish potatoes too. In my searches of his diaries I cannot find a mention of Yams.

  23. taiese
    February 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    yum

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