State Vegetables? – NC and the Permeating Presence of the Sweet Potato

sweet potato diced

If you’ve had a somewhat typical Thanksgiving, you’ve probably seen a lot of sweet potatoes in the past few days. Over the theoretically long weekend and four Thanksgivings, I know I’ve seen my fair share. Mostly in casseroles, but available in a variety of forms. With fries, pies, chips, marshmallows, and more upcoming holidays, chances are we’ll see plenty more. Though the US has seen a veritable boom in sweet potato usage and production in the past fifteen years, there’s actually a long-standing history with sweet potatoes and our state, country, and continent.

Sweet potatoes were already being cultivated on this continent when Columbus arrived in 1492 and were a common part of the diet and a cultivated crop of the settlers by the 1600’s. Some believe they were even eaten by dinosaurs. Since then, sweet potatoes have continued to grow in use and production, with production increases from 2000 to 2014 ranging from 100% in California to a whopping 185% in North Carolina. At first glance, this may seem like supply and demand would have the value of the sweet potato dropping; however, usage and consumption have grown almost as much, with the US consumption per capita increasing by 80% in the same period, 2014 has the highest consumption per capita on record. In fact, 2014 also had the second highest price per hundred pounds on record, only fifty cents behind the all-time high in 2013.

OK, so national sweet potato production is up. How does that affect our state? Well, last year, North Carolina produced 53% of the nation’s sweet potatoes, so there’s that. As it turns out, our ties to the sweet potato go even deeper. In 1993, a fourth grade class in Wilson NC decided to become more politically involved. They began writing letters to the state legislature to get sweet potatoes made the state vegetable of North Carolina. After two years and what grew into a community effort, it passed, and sweet potatoes became the state vegetable of North Carolina. I didn’t even know state vegetables were a thing, but with NC responsible for 53% percent of the nation’s production, I suppose it makes sense that the sweet potato would be ours. We may not have a monopoly, but we probably control two sides of the board. And at over half, I’m guessing one of those sides contains Boardwalk and Park Place.

As far as actual production is concerned, sweet potatoes are planted from seed potatoes in March. They’re ready to be cut and transplanted to fields in April, and grown from May to late October, prospering best in 70-90 degree days and 55-65 degree nights. They grow best in loamy soil, but only with proper drainage; excess water can damage the crop. After around 120 days, the sweet potatoes are ready for harvest. Some are sold immediately as the ‘green crop’, while others are cured and stored until needed. Curing sweet potatoes requires storage in a stable temperature of roughly 85 degrees for up to a week. The process of curing tightens the skins and converts the starches to sugars. This process makes the sweet potatoes sweeter, but also makes them harder to skin.

One may wonder why such a huge increase in production is taking place, or maybe just why there’s a boom to consumption. On the one hand, sweet potatoes are finding an ever-increasing list of uses. Not only are they becoming ingredients in more and more recipes and products, but they’re also used as an ingredient source for flour, starches, pectin, and pastas. While the uses continue to increase, health benefits play a big role in consumption as well . The large quantities of vitamin A are great for vision, and the abundance of both vitamins A and C serve as both an anti-inflammatory and as free radicals that can help fight the risk of cancer. The fiber content is great for digestion, and the complex carbs provide lots of energy. Sweet potatoes are even diabetic friendly, due to their low glycemic index and their ability to help stabilize blood sugar .

Considering all the health benefits of sweet potatoes and their myriad of uses from fries to recipe ingredients, it’s no real surprise that sweet potato production is growing, especially in a state where climate and soil conditions are ideal for sweet potato cultivation. And just in case you’re not convinced about sweet potatoes and their myriad of benefits and versatility of uses, check out this delicious recipe for African Peanut and Sweet Potato Stew, featured earlier this Fall in a Papa Spud’s recipe kit:

African Peanut & Chicken Stew

Inspired by West African cuisine, this hearty dish combines chicken thighs, sweet potatoes, and a spicy peanut flavor, for a filling stew that is perfect for a Fall day. Full flavored and easy to prepare!
Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 60 mins
Serves 3-4

Ingredients:
• 1/2 cup & 1/2 cup roasted peanuts – included
• 2 tsp. olive oil
• 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
• 1 lb. chicken thighs, bone-in- included
• 1 cup yellow onion, chopped- included
• 1 Tbsp. ginger, peeled, minced- included
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled, cubed – included
• 1 pint chicken broth
• 1 ct. tomato, chopped- included
• 2 tsp. coriander, ground – included
• pinch of red cayenne pepper
• salt & pepper
• cilantro, chopped- included

1. Prepare your peanuts and peanut paste. Measure our 1/2 cup of whole peanuts and set aside. Combine the other 1/2 cup of peanuts with 2 tsp. olive oil in a food processor or blender. Puree until smooth.

2. Heat vegetable oil in a soup pot over medium high heat. Wash chicken thighs, and pat them dry with paper towels. Season well with salt and pepper, and brown them in the hot vegetable oil. Remove from heat once nicely browned, about 5 minutes per side.

3. Reduce heat to medium and add onions to the pot and sauté for 3-4 minutes until soft. Stir frequently and scrape off any browned bits from the chicken. Add garlic and ginger and sauté for another 1 minute. Add sweet potatoes, and stir to combine all ingredients.

4. Stir in chicken broth, then add chicken thighs back to the pot, as well as tomatoes, whole peanuts and peanut paste (from step 1), coriander, and red cayenne pepper. Stir well to combine.

5. Bring to a simmer and taste seasoning. Add more salt or cayenne pepper if desired. Simmer, covered, for about 50-60 minutes, until chicken is cooked and comes easily off the bone.

6. Remove chicken from the pot, and when cool enough to handle, cut meat from the bone. Chop meat into bite-size pieces, and return to the pot.

7. Add fresh ground black pepper, and additional salt to taste. Serve topped with chopped cilantro.

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