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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.


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