They belong prominently on a Southern Appalachian dinner plate.
Nothing hits the spot on a brisk fall evening like a sweet potato that’s fresh out of the oven and bursting at the seams with its unmistakable rich, hearty flavor. The sweet potato, while not native to Appalachia, has been grown in these mountains for centuries. The plant thrives in the rocky soil and holds up well even in times of blazing heat and little rain. The leafy vines can yield a large crop in a relatively small area, making them a favorite on the farms of early Appalachia.
Tasty sweet potatoes can be prepared in a variety of ways. Not only could you warm up some sweet ‘taters to feed your family, you could use them to feed your livestock too. And wrapped up in a cloth on a cold winter night, a hot sweet potato was just about the best thing ever for keeping your feet warm while you fell asleep. As a result, the sweet potato became a staple in early Appalachian homes, and you’ll still find them gracing the table at just about any occasion worthy of a family dinner.
You can find sweet potatoes at most grocery stores, but if you’re more a grow-it-yourself type, sweet potatoes are one of the best bets for your garden. In the spring, before the nights start to warm up and stay that way, lay your sweet potatoes indoors on a bed of sandy soil in a container, and cover them with a couple inches of the soil. Once the ground warms up and the potatoes are sprouting, transplant them into your garden. Pop the sprouts off of the potato when they’re about eight to 10 inches high, and plant them close to a foot apart, at a depth of about three inches.
If you have kids in the house, you might prefer a different method of starting your sweet potato plant: cut a sweet potato in half, and stick a few toothpicks around the edges near the cut end, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel. Rest the spokes on the rim of a mason jar, with the uncut end of the potato hanging down into the jar. Cover the potato about halfway with water, and keep the water level there until you’re ready to transplant your sprouts. Keep the jar in a warm, sunny window, and watch as the sprouts begin to appear over the next few weeks. Transplant these sprouts just the same as you would if you’d started them in soil.
Sweet Southern Cuisine
You’re probably familiar with the Thanksgiving classic sweet potato casserole, topped with miniature marshmallows and maybe a sprinkling of pecans, in true Southern style. Baked sweet potatoes are another timeless treat. Who can resist splitting open the crisp skin and slathering the bright orange flesh with butter, warming your hands and face over the fragrant steam that rises up? While these are destined to remain among Appalachia’s favorite dishes, the sweet potato seems to be gaining popularity across the country, inspiring a wide array of delicious new ways to enjoy the tasty vegetable.
For example, forget about the old standard Irish potato French fry; the side dish everyone is craving now is sweet potato fries. Prepared the same way as the more well-known, paler fries, sweet potato fries are often seasoned with salt and pepper or a dash of Cajun seasoning, perfect for dipping in spicy ketchup.
Many other recipes exist, too. Warm your belly on a cold winter night with a bowl of creamy sweet potato soup. Or slice sweet potatoes into spears and roast them with olive oil and fresh herbs, and then serve them alongside a tender pork loin. And if you haven’t had quite enough sweet potato goodness with your dinner, serve up a big piece of sweet potato pie or a heaping bowl of sweet potato pudding for dessert.
No matter how you get your sweet potatoes or how you make them part of your next meal, it’s easy to see why they’ve always been at the heart of Appalachian cuisine.