Going on six years after writing a column called “The great green pepper ‘mango’ mystery,” I still receive comments from people who’ve stumbled across it on the Internet looking for the reason why their grandpa, aunt, hometown or vintage recipe referred to bell peppers as “mangoes.”
One recent commenter said the Columbus, Ohio, pizza shop he worked at in the 1950s-70s listed “mangoes” as a topping option, as did all the other pizza shops in the area.
“We never knew why; now we do,” he wrote. “Thanks. Now if you could just solve the yam/sweet potato confusion.”
Well, the basic answer shouldn’t be too hard: A true “yam” is never a sweet potato. Yams — also known as name (pronounced “nah-may”) — are tropical roots with rough brown skin and white, starchy flesh. They’re eaten in Africa, Asia, India, the Caribbean and the South Pacific.
Yams are available year-round in the U.S., but, for the most part, what’s sold in the produce department (or in the canned vegetables aisle) as a “yam” is actually a sweet potato.
And this is why the issue gets confusing.
Despite the stereotypical vision of sweet potato flesh being similar in hue to pumpkin or butternut squash, sweet potatoes also come in shades like white and purple, in addition to pale and deep orange. It seems that, in the earlier part of the 20th century, white varieties were known as sweet potatoes, and orange ones were called “yams.”
According to the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission’s website, “The orange-fleshed variety was introduced to the U.S. several decades ago. In order to distinguish it from the white variety everyone was accustomed to, producers and shippers chose the English form of the African word ‘nyami’ and labeled them ‘yams.’”
Kelly McIver, executive director of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commision, says white- and orange-flesh sweet potatoes were grown throughout the Southeast, but in the 1930s N.C. growers noticed Northern markets preferred the orange ones, so they increased production. Tennessee and Appalachian markets preferred white varieties at the time, she says.
Rene Simon, director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, says growers in the state turned to sweet potatoes as a cash crop after the boll weevil decimated their cotton in the 1930s. The sweet potato growers started using the term “yam” to set their product apart from that grown in the East. Simon says “yam” was typically applied to orange-flesh varieties.
According to the Louisiana commission, enslaved Africans called sweet potatoes “nyami” because it reminded them of the root eaten in their home countries, and the term was eventually shortened to “yam.”
This helps explain why where I’m from in Kansas, sweet potatoes are always orange, not white, and if there is any distinction between them and “yams,” the latter is what we call the marshmallow-topped side dish served at Thanksgiving.
So to rehash: Nine times out of 10, what’s sold in the produce department as a yam is actually a sweet potato, unless it’s a true yam — and then it might be called “name.”
Clear as mud?
Amelia Freidline is The Packer’s designer and copy chief. E-mail her at email@example.com.