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The Rise of the Sweet Potato; And a Recipe for Sweet Potato Pie

  • The consumption of sweet potatoes has increased in the last decade. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    The consumption of sweet potatoes has increased in the last decade. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Finely chopped pecan pieces are sprinkled atop this fresh sweet potato pie. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Finely chopped pecan pieces are sprinkled atop this fresh sweet potato pie. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The consumption of sweet potatoes has increased in the last decade. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Finely chopped pecan pieces are sprinkled atop this fresh sweet potato pie. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

It used to be that my only close encounter with sweet potatoes took place on the fourth Thursday of November, when I scooped a few spoonfuls of sweet potato pie onto my dinner plate, careful not to let it it touch the gigantic helpings of turkey, mashed potatoes and jellied cranberries. By Black Friday morning, I had fulfilled my annual sweet potato quota, and returned to not thinking about them, much less eating them, for the ensuing 364 days.

My sweet potato experience, it seems, was not unique. For many years in the American culinary calendar, Thanksgiving was the one time of the year that sweet potatoes were allowed to shine. “Years ago, you had baked sweet potatoes, or sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving,” said Tara Smith, a specialist at the Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, La., a subsidiary of Louisiana State University’s AgCenter.

In the last 10 years, sweet potatoes have shed their shrinking violet reputation. Nationwide, there are now roughly 125,000 acres devoted to growing sweet potatoes, compared to about 100,000 a decade ago, according to Smith. Annual per capita consumption has risen, too, from 4.1 pounds in 2000 to 6.4 pounds in 2011. These days, it’s rare to walk into any restaurant and not find sweet potato fries on the menu, whether it’s a burger joint or a place that serves prime rib.

The rise of the sweet potato has correlated with an increased focus on health and nutrition. With the push to incorporate more vegetables into the American diet, the sweet potato has increasingly been a go-to veggie. They boast a healthy dose of vitamins A and C, beta carotine and antioxidants, and have a lower glycemic index than bread and potatoes. It also doesn’t hurt that sweet potatoes are more likely to whet one’s appetite than, say, brussel sprouts.

“The nutritional value of the crop has been widely touted, and consumers are paying attention to the nutritional aspects that are being marketed and put in front of them, and rightly so,” Smith said. Sweet potato-growing states like Louisiana, North Carolina and California all have sweet potato commissions that mount large marketing campaigns to promote the crop.

Four years ago, Lisa Johnson of Norwich seized on the increasing popularity of what she calls the “vegetable from heaven” when she started her company Yummy Yammy, making batches of sweet potato dips in her home. A sharp uptick in her business has led the “Y’Ambassador” to move production to a kitchen in Hardwick, Vt., where she creates Yummy Yammy dips for 35 stores, including one Whole Foods Market.

“It’s right in line, I think, with people’s interest in having health and nutrition and great taste,” she said. “I think people are rediscovering this amazing superfood vegetable. You cannot make an argument against a sweet potato that holds water.”

Many people will boil or steam sweet potatoes, but Johnson says roasting them on a tray at 350 to 400 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour is the way to go. “It’ll caramelize some of the natural sugars in it,” she said. “Really, it’s almost impossible to do something bad to it.”

Grandmother’s Recipe

My annual encounter with sweet potatoes came via my grandmother Eunice, known to all her grandkids as Gigi, in honor of being our “Gorgeous Grandmother.” With her elegantly coiffed white hair and designer clothes in bold hues, Gigi turned heads well into her eighties, without being flashy or vain.

Thanksgiving week was a series of rituals for Gigi, each performed with reverence. Monday was devoted to setting out the serving platters, silver and linen napkins on the dining room table. Tuesday, she and my mother got to work on the family’s heirloom stuffing recipe, tearing pieces of bread into tiny cubes and pummeling a sleeve of saltine crackers into tiny bits for the oyster dish. She saved the sweet potatoes for the day before Thanksgiving. There were no specific measurements Gigi followed; my mother tells me she was your classic eyeball cook. Her method always yielded a delicious Thanksgiving feast, but can be frustrating to recreate for a follow-each-step-and-measurement cook like yours truly.

Recently, I revisited Gigi’s sweet potato pie recipe, and immediately regretted not paying closer attention to her way of preparing this keystone dish. Yet with some gentle coaching from Mom, and supervision from my fiance, a far better cook than I will ever be, I managed. I reached into the oven and pulled out a pie that was the shade of rust, and adorned with pecans. I breathed a sigh of relief then, and another after lifting a spoonful of the pie to my tongue. Equal parts smooth, sweet and tangy, thanks to a dash of orange juice, it brought me back to the days before sweet potato fries were served in every bar and grill and sweet potato baby food was available in multiple varieties. Back before sweet potatoes were the vegetable du jour, Gigi introduced me to their possibilities, just as she would do for many things in my life.

Eunice Ryan’s Sweet Potato Pie

5 to 6 large sweet potatoes

2 Tbsp butter, softened

1/2 tsp brown sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

Dash of orange juice

Salt and pepper (to taste)

1 tsp chopped pecans (optional)

Pie crust (pre-made or make your own)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Use a fork to prick three sets of holes in each sweet potato. Place on a baking sheet in oven and bake for one hour. While waiting for potatoes, prepare the crust and place it in a pie dish.

Remove sweet potatoes from oven; let cool before peeling. In a large bowl, mash potatoes thoroughly with butter before pouring in orange juice, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Pour into pie dish and heat at 350 degrees until warm.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.