For that holiday dinner—yams or sweet potatoes?

By Judy Woodward

Every month, the reference librarians at the Roseville Library receive dozens of questions from the public. Here is one of the more interesting queries we received recently:

Q: Which go better with turkey—yams or sweet potatoes?

The holiday season is coming, and that brings up an old and contentious question. Which do you load your festive table with—deep orange yams or yellowish-white sweet potatoes?

To some degree, it doesn’t really matter, because both of those reddish-brown-skinned tubers—whether they have white- or orange-colored flesh—are almost certainly sweet potatoes. Real yams are a different plant altogether, and one that is rarely found in American grocery stores.

The reason for the mislabeling has to do with some vegetable growers in the 1930s who wanted to create a memorable “re-branding” for their orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. They borrowed the name “yam” from the West African Fulani word “nyami,” which describes a starchy root vegetable that can reach tremendous size and weight and is used as a staple crop in Africa.

In the end, the growers achieved breakthrough marketing success, although they may have created permanent confusion in the minds of American grocery shoppers.

As to which type of sweet potato—orange or white—tastes better with turkey, that’s a matter of personal taste. The esteemed cooking magazine Bon Appetit seems to come down on the side of the orange-fleshed variety. But maybe that’s just to keep things simple for the legions of holiday diners who couldn’t otherwise recognize the difference between sweet potatoes and their beloved mashed Russets.

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Judy Woodward, who lives in St. Anthony Park, is a reference librarian at the Roseville Library, 2180 N. Hamline Ave. The library’s general phone number is 651-724-6001.

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