In 1543, DeSoto’s Spanish explorers found sweet potatoes growing in “Indian gardens” in what became
Louisiana. The sweet potatoes were also cultivated in the Carolina area of North America before the European colonization. In Colonial days sweet potatoes were an item of trade and were shipped from the Carolinas to our northern cities. The sweet potato was an essential food for all the colonies in the days before modern means of preservation.
This root crop kept hunger from the doors of many generations of our ancestors. During the trying times of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars it was a staple food. A Colonial physician recommended sweet potatoes especially for children, because of the potatoes’ value in combating childhood nutritional diseases.
At the Sampson County estate sale of Thomas B. Hare in July of 1854, Lovett Lockamy purchased the sweet potato patch for $6.25. At the same sale, William Page bid $6.60 for a sow and five pigs. In the 1860 agriculture census Joseph Carroll Jr. of Mingo Township, Sampson County, NC reported 300 bushels of sweet potatoes. His Indian corn 250 bushels, oats 35 bushels, peas/beans 65 bushels and white potatoes 10 bushels. This gives us an idea of how important sweet potatoes were in the diet of our past kin folk.
It supplemented the limited diet of the slave population from late summer until spring time. Many slave cabins had root cellars beneath the floor boards. This cellar served as an underground storage space for the weekly rationing of sweet potatoes and other foods. Most large plantations had a sweet potato-lot. In this fenced enclosure several mounds or hills of potatoes. They were protected from the cold and frost of winter. The potatoes became sweet and tasty under the curing mounds or “tater hill”.
In the days prior to and during the Civil War the sweet potato was cut into chunks and planted in the early warm summer soil. This culture practice was similar to planting the Irish potato today. In more recent history sweet potato slips or plants were hand pegged into a prepared ridge. During times of shortages in the southland, while the War Between the States raged, the sweet potato became one of many substitutes for coffee. The potato was cut into thin pieces dried, parched, ground and brewed.
In former days the sweet potato patch was abundant in North Carolina, and was a familiar sight on most every farm from the Colonial days until the time of World War II. The sweet potato ranked second only to the Irish potato, among vegetable crops in the United States in the early days of this century. The sweet potato became associated with hard times in the minds of our ancestors and when they became affluent they change their menu and the potato was served less often.
Pleasant childhood memories include a potato hill that children could crawl into and hide. In the minds eye one can still see granny carefully stooping to select an apron full of baking potatoes for the next days’ meal. Just plain baking the potato is second to no other method of preparation. By-gone generations of school children and field hands alike packed the dinner bucket with links of sausage and baked sweet potatoes.
The sweet potato was the snack food of our grandparents. Children would whine I’m hunger, only to be told “take an old cold tater and wait”. Country Music singer, Little Jimmy Dickens, reflected this nostalgic emotion of his generation with the song “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait”. Who among us remembers sopping cracklings with a cold sweet potato? Better yet, who knows what cracklings are?
Surprisingly in the botanical family the morning glory and the sweet potato are sisters. One can see similarities when looking at a sweet potato patch with its tangle of vines and occasional flowers. Generations have enjoyed the beauty of the blossoms’ sparkle under the beads of early morning dew.
In spite of all the nostalgia and history on the side of the nutritious sweet potato it has ever so slowly lost its prominent position on the dinner tables of North America. The per capita consumption of sweet potatoes in the United States was 31 pounds in 1920, in recent years it dipped below four pounds per capita. The sweet tater patch has given way to large potato fields, while the tater hill has lost out to modern potato storage houses. The smell of sweet taters baking in a wood burning cook stove is but a fading memory.
*From the April 2006 issue of the Huckleberry Historian