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The Deep and Twisted Roots of the American Yam

The American yam is not the food it says it is. How that came to be is a story of robbery, reinvention, and identity.

Richard A Chance

“The yam is the power that be.” —Kendrick Lamar

“That’s just natural,” the farmer says, prodding the tobacco in his mouth. “Like God created it.”

A diligent cultivator, Brent Leggett will spare no effort to ensure a bountiful harvest, but even he can’t control the dirt. In Nash County, North Carolina—where cotton and tobacco were once king, and where sweet potatoes now reign supreme—enterprise is indebted to the earth, a soft, sandy, and khaki-brown soil perfectly suited for tubers and industrial crops alike. At the cusp of the 19th century, enslaved workers tended to this county’s agricultural output. Today, the harvest periods for sweet potatoes and cotton still overlap, from the beginning of October into early November. As I sink my heels into the loamy ridges of Leggett’s plot, I ponder this tangled history of bondage and reinvention.

Leggett, 46, is wearing a forest-green windbreaker. Underneath is a sky-blue oxford, and below that a pearly white undershirt hugs his clavicle. His ivory face is flushed, and his eyes have a turquoise tint. The farmer moves deftly between rows. Laborers with bucket hats and dusty cloth gloves brush craters in the ground. They remove one salmon-hued orb after another, lobbing them into plastic buckets at their feet.

“We had a touch of frost last week, so the growing season’s about cold,” Leggett says, the November sun glaring down on his face. “When you got a coat on like this, nothing’s gonna grow.” He moves ahead and scoops a few sweet potatoes out of a brimming red pail, opening his palms for me to feel the produce.

Moist sand clings to their flesh like brown sugar. I drag my index and middle fingers down their spine, my thumb along their sides. They are fresh and soft and warm. In my hands lies a precious thing.

“Yam” is what we call it, my people and me. My father’s mother ate yams under the tin roof of a Louisiana sharecropping shack; my mother’s mother learned to cook them from her father and passed the secret down to me. First boil, next peel and slice, then dress, and finally bake. If we know anything, we know yams. Us and them go way back.

It’s just that biologically, phonetically, or otherwise speaking, “yam” is a bit of a misnomer. The true yam, the original yam, is from West Africa and goes by the scientific classification Dioscorea rotundata, a name I cannot pronounce but I can discern is not the same as the sweet potato, whose official designation is Ipomoea batatas. A West African yam can grow to the size of an arm or a leg. It is earthen and hairy, like an elephant or a rhino, and tastes kind of like a russet potato with a far more fibrous consistency. It is white, not orange, on the inside, and it cannot grow in non-tropical climates. There is nothing sweet about it. And yet whenever anyone in my family sees a steaming sweet potato—all orange insides and bubbling sugar—the word that almost always comes out of our mouths is “yam.”

The origins of the term are steeped in ambiguity. On the slave coast, along the Bight of Benin, there are many fertile sources from which it may have grown. The word “nyam” appears in both Serer (meaning “eat”) and Wolof (meaning “taste”). “Nyami,” in Fulani, and “nymabi,” in Bantu, each mean “to eat.” In Twi, a dialect of the Akan people, “anyinam” quite literally translates to “yam.” The true yam was the ruling crop of West Africa: fueler of cultures and civilizations. Many polities in the region still hold festivals in its honor. When the first European vessels made landfall on the continent, “yam” was applied to this tuber in a kind of linguistic disconnect. Slavers regarded the crop as they did the people who they aimed to make chattel: wretched and expendable. “In their own country, the negroes in general live on animal food and filth,” wrote a British trafficking physician in 1788, “with roots, yams, and Indian corn.”

Perhaps later, half-starved and still sickened from the barracoons and the waves, a prisoner in Jamestown, Charleston, or Manhattan cried out at the sight of a vaguely similar root. Maybe a child saw a sweet potato and was reminded of the food they once ate with their family. The only certainty is that “yam,” a term that was spawned as a tumor of European exploitation, spread from the tuber of West Africa to the sweet potato of the Americas in conjunction with the birth and expansion of the slave trade. And its usage continued long past enslavement for so many years and so many lives that Americans white and Black not only forgot where the word came from, but that it came from anywhere at all. The sweet potato was seen as plantation food until the early 20th century, when producers and advertisers looking for a leg up in a crowded marketplace pitched a new orange-hued genus to the entire country and branded it (once more) a yam. By midcentury, yams as we know them had become certified Americana.

Over the next few days, people across the United States will consume tens of millions of pounds of sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving. They will fill their tables with this product in celebration of an ancient diplomatic feast, a fabrication steeped in conquering propaganda that is the basis for our nation’s most foundational holiday. I will do as I’ve done in moments with family all my life: venture home and eat a food that is not what it says it is. I cannot imagine a scene with the people I love most without it. There is not much about my great-grandmother’s wake that I remember, but to this day I recall the yams the church women implored me to eat. Even now, when I smell my clothes after reunions, there is sometimes a hint of yam locked in the fabric. Buttered and candied, we make them in mourning and in joy.

It is a ritual, a part of us. And yet, when thinking about this, I find it both calming and unsettling; I feel soothed by something larger and at once tethered to it, too. I often wonder what it says about me that the totem I most associate with home has been stolen and twisted more times than I can count. That its story—its very name—is inseparable from tragedy. That it is, in truth, not actually the thing that was once mine, once ours, but that I love it nonetheless. That as I gripped that sandy tuber in the Carolina sun, I couldn’t help but view it as a reflection of my own existence and an outgrowth of it.

Leggett Farms
Lex Pryor

There was no ceremony. Somewhere in the Atlantic, shackled and pent, the enslaved people of West Africa last ate the yams of their homelands. Provisions in the Gulf of Guinea were hard to find. A vessel would have to make do with what was available, and this was as good a match as any. In his late 17th-century account of the slave trade, the French commercial agent Jean Barbot noted the importance of the true yam:

When yams are very plentiful, the first thing to be done, is to take them in, and afterwards the slaves. A ship that takes in five hundred slaves, must provide above a hundred thousand yams ... the slaves there being of such a constitution, that no other food will keep them.

The records of ships from Europe and the Americas often listed yams among their most prized victuals. Unlike bread or flour, yams could last an entire journey, and they were grown in bulk. In the account book of the 1803 Liverpool vessel Enterprize, one of the ship’s financiers instructed his captain to make the voyage from Nigeria to Barbados only after “you have finished your trade and laid in a sufficient quantity of Yams.” For centuries, slave traders up and down the coast of West Africa planned departures specifically around the crop’s harvest cycle from August to October.

On board the prisoners were forced to eat them, boiled and in clumps. They were fed in the same muck they were caged. Away from the light and the air. In grappling with this picture, I find myself pulled to the cognitive dissonance of eating that object at that time. How it must’ve felt for a yam to hug the roof of their mouth in a place they may have believed to be hell. To be lost and tired, sick and inexpressibly furious, and to be greeted by a dish that felt utterly incongruent with that reality. To even think of it is to be shattered: They were force-fed a piece of home, to keep them alive, as a means to be sold. Their final memory with the yam was that it had just been used to rob them.

And this was only the beginning.

As the story goes, the couple hanged from a cedar tree near a brook in Readington Township, New Jersey. Few specific details are available. In a speech more than a century later, in 1894, a local reverend recounted a handful of tidbits that were passed down to him. The man and woman were enslaved, having been taken directly from Africa. They were purchased by a landowner named Jacob Kline at an auction in the early 18th century. From the very beginning of their bondage, they were “fearfully homesick,” according to the reverend. Kline, he said, made every effort “to cheer and comfort them—save, of course, that of setting them free.” One morning Kline could not locate his workers and went looking for them. Hanging from a branch in the woods next to his property, he “found only the lifeless bodies of those who refused to remain as slaves.”

In 2004, Kenneth E. Marshall published an article in the Journal of American Ethnic History that looked to verify the events described by the clergyman. Marshall was not only able to confirm the authenticity of the story, but also to detail the facts surrounding it. The couple “landed in New Jersey around the period of 1744-1749.” They were relatively isolated from other enslaved people, forced to split their time working at Kline’s tannery and his private homestead. They were likely from Sierra Leone, and they had a little boy named Yombo.

Yombo was no older than 10 when he was orphaned. Based on Marshall’s research, he lived to be at least 70. As an adult, Yombo said he was born in Africa and survived the journey across the Atlantic with his parents. He was known to say his father was a “big man” back in their homeland.

Memory can be a tricky thing, particularly in childhood. It’s the craters, the momentous occasions, that tend to stick. The little things, the infinite pieces of actual living, are so difficult to clutch. To remember parents lost at a young age requires a miraculous and iron grip. And it’s not as if Yombo were in a place where folks like him were meant to hold much of anything.

Enslavement was intended to be antithetical to attachment. There’s a reason marriage ceremonies in bondage often contained the pledge “until death or distance do you part.” The choice to latch onto someone or something else, even in memory, became a twisted kind of luxury.

This, I think, was the designed dagger of slavery: to make the remembering seem pointless. First came the stripping, the removal of the former self. Then came the vise grip. A captor tried to hold tight for long enough to claim that this was all meant to be. To insist that, as Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens once said, “subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Read that again: “natural and normal.” Worship the machine for enough time and the lie starts to dim.

When I think of Yombo or his parents—the ships they arrived in, or the food they were forced to eat—I’m reminded that I am the product of a line of people who continued and a line of people who didn’t. And the distance between them is only so far.

The Native people of Virginia called the wild sweet potato okeepenavk. It arrived a few thousand years ago from South or Central America. The type that grows below the equator is the closest untamed relative to those we eat today. What’s strange—and scientists don’t have an answer for this—is that somehow the common sweet potato also has been present on many Pacific islands for longer than humans have been able to cross oceans.

There is one hypothesis that a bird called the golden plover may have ingested some of its seeds in South America and carried them to Polynesia. From there, the plant may have grown in isolation until there was human contact. But many researchers aren’t convinced. By the time Columbus got to the Caribbean, sweet potatoes were being grown by the Taino people. He seems to describe them in his diary as “small branches, at the foot of which grow roots like carrots,” though he may have actually been referring to cassava.

Library of Congress

For planters in the humid and temperate climate of the American South, the sweet potato was convenient, viable, and cheap. Enslaved people grew it in their gardens and provision grounds, rare spaces of cherished autonomy. They’d cook the tubers in the ash and coals of exhausted fires, a method previously wielded in African cooking. One former field hand interviewed in the Works Progress Administration’s Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project recalled how her family would serve sweet potatoes “baked and browned in the pan.”

In his 2013 book Soul Food, the culinary historian Adrian Miller details how enslaved chefs were taught “the latest developments in French cuisine” to appease their owners. The chefs then combined the Parisian practice of sugaring vegetables with their own cooking instincts, resulting in the earliest forms of “candied yams.”

As tropes of Black deficiency spread in the 17th and 18th centuries, the sweet potato was branded as slave food. Thomas Jefferson described the root in his notes at Monticello as “that kind which the negroes tend to so generally.” William Summer, a South Carolina slaveholder and the founder of the Pomaria Nursery, took the concept further, writing of the “partiality of the plantation negroes to potatoes” in an 1845 agricultural guide.

To the negro, the potatoe is a blessing; for, to the known improvidence and carelessness of this race, it is particularly adapted, as it require no culinary skill to make it both edible and palatable, simple roasting in the ashes being the best preparation the cook can give them.

It is unclear how widely the term “yam” circulated within captive communities themselves. For every formerly enslaved person who recalled, in WPA interviews, being “raised on ash cakes, yams and buttermilk,” there is another who remembered a love for “sweet potatoes … roasted in the hot coals.” And yet, yam or not, the tuber took hold where it was unwelcome. It adapted; it found new homes. The dirty secret to Southern American cooking is that almost any food Black people ate eventually became food white people ate too. Call it an impulse, a tendency to imprint onto the very things that were once deemed inferior. But any time in American history that Black folks have appeared to have something delicious, it has simply been a matter of time before white America ventures to take a bite.

T.D. Rice was a biter and a thief, but most of all he was a liar. I am sure of this, in spite of there being little documentation of his words. There’s an article, published in The Atlantic in 1867, tracking his rise from lowly traveling actor to father of blackface minstrelsy. Few of its details are verifiable, and parts of it present like a work of fiction, but it contains all that needs to be known. Rice was, according to legend, walking the backstreets of Cincinnati when he heard a Black stage driver crooning an old tune about being ordered around. The song featured the words “turn about” and “wheel about” and “do just so.” Most importantly, it ended with this line: “And every time I turn about I jump Jim Crow.”

Rice, having been “struck by the peculiarities of the performance,” saw an opportunity for his next act. By the time he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1830, he had penned a spinoff and planned on debuting it. Near the venue where Rice was set to perform, he supposedly encountered a Black porter named Cuff. (Cuff is assuredly not real, but that’s not the point.)

As the tale goes, Rice approaches Cuff and convinces him to come to the theater with “slight persuasion.” After arriving, Rice directs Cuff to strip so that he can wear his clothes on stage. Cuff, dotingly, agrees. Rice dabs his face with a blackening agent and dons “a dense black wig of matted moss.” Then, cloaked in Cuff’s dilapidated clothing, Rice struts backstage, up to the curtains, and “waddle[s] into view.” The tale ends as Rice—having performed his new material—is showered with “a thunder of applause.”

For more than a decade, Rice made a career out of this act. He painted his face with residue from burnt corks, wore black woolen wigs, and danced and sang across continents. As his popularity grew he was known to sport blue vests with gold buttons, each affixed with diamonds. He was fond of telling crowds that he, more than any other entertainer, had “studied the negro character” and found that Black people were “essentially an inferior species.”

But I can spot the lie. Rice didn’t know anything about us. He believed that he could inhabit Blackness, not out of scorn, but desperation. He believed he was not enough. Rice was a failure until he contrived his little gag. He would cloak it in mockery, disguise it in disgust, but the truth he betrayed each time he soiled his face was that the prancing creature that appeared on stage was all he ever really wanted to be.

Rice was not struck by our “peculiarities” because he abhorred them. He envied them. He wanted a taste of fortune and fulfillment, so he used us to get there.

Nearly all of the first cookbooks authored by Black people in America feature recipes for sweet potatoes. In Malinda Russell’s 1866 text A Domestic Cookbook, the root appears in a “baked pudding” along with eggs, sugar, butter, cream, and nutmeg. In the seminal 1881 cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Abby Fisher lists a sweet potato pie recipe that includes butter, egg yolks, sugar, and orange juice. In his 1911 cookbook Good Things to Eat, Rufus Estes offers two recipes for sweet potatoes. Each involves sugar, butter, and boiling water.

A Mississippi State study of food patterns among sharecroppers in the 1930s and ’40s found that although sweet potatoes were more expensive than white or Irish potatoes, Black families bought them at an equal rate. During the Great Migration, the roots went north with us too. In Harlem, vendors traded, baked, candied, and fried yams, from makeshift stoves and pushcarts up and down Eighth Avenue. In concert with this growth, white America flocked to the yam.

The first step was the creation of a new product. Before the 20th century there were two main types of sweet potatoes in the country: moist and dry. The dry tubers were the output of northern farms. The moist tubers were traditionally associated with the South. In the early 1930s, Julian C. Miller, a researcher at Louisiana State University, developed a new breed of moist sweet potato that had orange insides and reddish skin. It was sweet and smooth when cooked, and transported well enough to ship. In his field reports on the genus, Miller explained that his goal was “to produce a product that the consumers want.”

Louisiana farms and distributors began to advertise this new crop as a yam. At the height of the Second World War, with the U.S. reeling from supply shortages, the government contracted farmers to provide it with the new variety in bulk. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that it ordered 2 million pounds dehydrated and another 21 million pounds fresh. Agricultural grower’s guides urged farmers to pick up the lucrative new root. In 1958, The New York Times was referring to sweet potatoes as yams, despite conceding that “this name was chosen by the sweet potato industry of Louisiana to differentiate its product from other varieties.”

Recipes for baked yams, broiled yams, and candied yams soon appeared in newspapers and magazines around the country. By the 1970s and ’80s, the American yam had effectively been enshrined in U.S. popular culture. It had transformed into a Thanksgiving staple. It had gone mainstream.

And therein lies the irony: What was once regarded as unsophisticated and inherently deficient became not only a necessity but an outright custom. The thing to remember about the growth of both the sweet potato economy and minstrelsy is that inevitably the co-opters came to embrace the very thing they long professed a commitment to ridiculing. Racial theft is often perceived as a matter of robbery alone, but at its most basic form it is equally an act of exacerbation. Perpetrators venture up the same roads they once burned and compliment the scenery. It is not the eating of this thing that is wrong. It is the commitment to forget all that came before it.

New York Historical Society

When Rice was at the peak of his popularity in the 1830s, he would perform at a theater called the Bowery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There are no photos of his shows, but there is a painting of one. In it, his face is as black as tar and his frame is surrounded by debaucherous mayhem. The crowd, all white and mostly male, has spilled onto the dais. Some men are fighting. Most of them are jostling. To Rice’s right one man is throwing another to the ground by his throat.

The crowd loves the performance so much that they are ignorant to the fact that no one on stage is wearing a mask. They’re so lost in the lie that they forget it ever existed.

The farmer Brent Leggett has at least four methods of communication in his bright white Chevrolet Silverado: an iPad in a matte black case, a walkie-talkie with a stubby black antenna, an iPhone that’s connected to the car’s internal system, and a wired radio to contact his workers. He’s on the phone at the moment. “We’ll just put all them peanuts in the big trailer,” Leggett says, extending the uht in “peanuts” with enough twang to swallow the s. “That will be fine.”

Leggett glances down at his tablet and turns to me. “This is what a modern-day farmer does. It’s not driving a tractor with bib overalls and a straw hat,” he says. “What we try to do is control the madness.”

There are 50 workers on Leggett’s sweet potato field this morning. Unlike many other crops, sweet potatoes are still harvested mainly by hand. On a given day a worker will pick up to 200 multigallon buckets’ worth of yams, from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. When a batch is ready, the worker deposits their yield at a school bus that moves alongside them—the back of which has been removed and replaced with four 8-foot-wide crates. Two men stand atop the platform that holds the crates and distribute the loads. The bus, like the workers, is almost always in motion.

Leggett says he pays his laborers an hourly minimum of $13.15, “plus housing, plus transportation, plus all utilities.” The workforce is composed largely of participants in the Department of Labor’s H-2A program, which allows certain U.S. farmers to bring foreign citizens into the country to fill temporary agricultural positions. Many of them have been working harvest here for more than a decade.

Virtually the only type of sweet potato Leggett plants is the Covington variety, a modern descendant of the kind Julian Miller pioneered nearly a century ago. Covingtons are slightly more oblong than other breeds, but carry the same orange interior and creamy texture. Since their introduction in the early 2000s, they have increased in popularity every year. “It’s the Cadillac of sweet potatoes,” Leggett says. He swears customers won’t buy other kinds. “Just like fire trucks are supposed to be red, a sweet potato is supposed to be orange.”

In 1989, the USDA banned sellers from labeling their sweet potatoes as outright yams. Products can still include the word “yam” on their packaging, but they must specify that they’re actually sweet potatoes. Leggett sells his harvest to a number of distributors who handle advertising. When I ask whether he’s familiar with the history of the word “yam,” he says he knows only a bit. “Do you eat those yams?” he inquires, referring to the African type, his brow furrowing.

The last place a sweet potato enters on Leggett Farms before it is sent off to a distributor is the curing house, an arching metallic facility that sits about 10 miles south of the main fields. Crates of sweet potatoes are stacked seven rows high throughout the building. Fresh hauls first enter one of the warming rooms, which are kept at 82 degrees and 85 percent humidity, to make the tubers sweeter and heal their wounds. From there, they are transferred to a cooling suite and chilled to 57 degrees by two mammoth industrial fans. “We want the best available product for the consumer to purchase,” Leggett says, standing in one of these vaults.

Behind him, on a stack of wooden pallets, are three cardboard boxes. They have white backgrounds and large text in their corners. The font is bright orange. It spells “YAMS.”

Harlem, 5th Avenue and 135th Street, 1927
Bettmann/Getty Images

The true yams are wedged between the bananas and the potatoes in Keita West African Market, on Broadway Avenue in Brooklyn. They are below the golden bags of Vanilla Chin Chin and the orange bags of plantain chips, and to the left of the cash register, which itself is cased in glass. They are front and center, the yams. As they should be.

“We can sell like two boxes a day,” the store’s owner, Mariame Keita, tells me. “People buy yam like every day.” Keita has had this market since 2002. Nearly all of the goods that fill the walls, shelves, and refrigerators of the snug Brooklyn bazaar are imported from West Africa. Palm oil, canned eggplant, and kontomire brine all line the wall closest to the entryway.

Yams, though, are the staple. Keita gets the earthen-gray tubers flown in from Ghana on cargo planes every two weeks. The cost of shipping is almost double what it is back on the continent, but it’s worth it given the demand from expatriates. “You have to pay for the transportation for it to come here,” Keita says, the afternoon sun illuminating the floor of the storefront. “That’s why the prices go a little bit high.”

Customers thread into the shop, past the thin aisle bridging its front and back halves, around the divider filled with spices on either side. A woman in a deep green coat and red winter hat reaches out to the shelf behind me. Before Keita opened this boutique she owned a braiding salon across the street. Before that she grew up in Ivory Coast. When I ask what she thinks about when she looks at one of the yams in the store, she says, “I think about home.”

Keita is wearing a black shawl adorned with a beaded print of a shimmering metallic rose. Her eyes are mocha brown, and tighten when she smiles. “You just want to know about the yam,” she says. “That’s it?”

The sun lowers in the distance. I grab a yam and it fills my palm. It is fresh and firm and warm.

“I know you’re going to like it,” she tells me.

Though I cannot know him, I think of him often, Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. He glides through Harlem. The man is nameless. He has lost himself. He is cold, injured, and unmoored. He paces down a sidewalk and smells the scent of yams. He moves toward a vendor and purchases a tuber. “I can see you one of them old-fashioned yam eaters,” the vendor tells him. “They’re my birthmark,” the man responds, proudly.

A yam is sweet and absorbing, too good to be true. It powers and sustains, but is distorted and contrived. It heals and rejuvenates, but is fickle and flawed. A yam is a product of bloody circumstance. A yam, too, is a blessing of benevolent fate.

I have come to the realization that I am putting something into a thing that was not meant to hold it. That it does not matter whether the tuber is orange or white. That it does not matter when I first met it, or if it is indeed the thing I first met. That it does not matter, even, what name it is given. The charm, you see, has never been inside the root.

I know this, instinctively. And yet I would not have it any other way. I am trying to make sense of myself in a swirl of robberies, and I don’t know how to do that besides remembering. There are ways to remember when it ought to be impossible. There are ways to pass down when you have nothing left to give. I’ve learned them. They’re my birthmark, like those who came before me. With luck and proper care, we can plant our histories.

Now back, once more, to my people. I am making them a dish. There are roots on the counter. Their skin is soft and red. Children walk behind me, eyeing down the food. “Is that potatoes?” one asks me.

I call it a yam.

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