White and Sweet

Because the word potato was used interchangeably for both the white, or so-called “Irish,” and the sweet potato in the Lowcountry for nearly 200 years, it is difficult to know in many old recipes which tuber the cook meant. Indeed, in many bread recipes from the latter part of the 19th century, next to the word potato is the explanatory note “either Irish or sweet.” One of my favorite accompaniments to winter meat dishes is mashed potatoes—half white and half sweet.

Both white potatoes and sweet potatoes entered European kitchens at about the same time, from South America; their histories have often been confused. Adding to the confusion is the fact that yams, native to the tropics, appeared in the colonies at that time. They have always been mistaken as sweet potatoes; when the Lowcountry was settled by people who had first lived in the West Indies, they called sweet potatoes “yams,” even though true yams were not and are not part of the local cuisine.
As for white potatoes, I usually buy locally grown boiling potatoes, new and red-skinned, small to medium-sized. I scrub them well, boil them with their jackets on until they are about half cooked, then roughly cut them and fry them in hot oil or lard, heavily seasoned with Herbal Mix and freshly ground black pepper, until they are golden brown all over. And, as with all fried foods, I drain them on a rack rather than letting them sit on a piece of paper, so that they do not absorb grease.

Sweet potatoes are another story. They appear in crab soup with coconut, in orange shells, and in breads, but not all Lowcountry cooks love them as I do. Lucille Grant, one of the best Lowcountry cooks, won’t eat sweet potatoes. Having grown up poor, the daughter of a fisherman on Bulls Bay, she tells of having only sweet potatoes to eat in the afternoons after school. It was not proper to eat before one’s elders, and her father could return in his small boat only with the incoming tide, which might be very late at night. Lucille and her sisters would go get potatoes from the “bank,” a mound of earth filled with dirt and straw where potatoes are stored from November to May, toss them in the glowing embers of the hearth, and, after 30 minutes, pull the perfectly roasted sweet potatoes out and eat them, with a little butter if it was available. Lucille swore to herself she would never eat sweet potatoes again.

We do not have root cellars in the Lowcountry because the land is at sea level; when we dig, we hit water. Aboveground potato banks serve the same purpose as the cellar; they are still common sights on the barrier islands. If you stop at any of the small vegetable stands in the winter months, you will probably see a mound of earth not far from the dizzying display of greens and root vegetables. You will also probably be confronted by several varieties of sweet potatoes—I’ve seen as many as a dozen at one stand. Ask the vendor which are the least recently dug, as they will be the sweetest. There are potatoes for baking, others for boiling. Some will cook quickly in a stir-fry, and some are very woody, like true yams. My favorite way to eat sweet potatoes is baked twice in their jackets and served with butter. (Bake them whole in a 375° oven until they give to the touch, about 1 hour. Then reheat them in a hot oven until they are warm.) The Porto Rico is a nonhybrid baking variety that has a rust-colored jacket and deep, reddish orange very sweet flesh. It is a favorite in the Lowcountry. Most recipes call for potatoes that have been parboiled.

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