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November 19th, 2012 at 11:45 am

A Soul Food Thanksgiving

Sweet Potato, Frederick Douglass Opie

As the recent and wildly successful university press week reminded us, university presses provide readers with a wide range of new ideas and intellectual perspectives. However, as a university press with a list in food studies, Columbia University Press also works with a number of authors, who can offer some more practical advice when it comes to the kitchen. So, just in time for Thanksgiving, we’d like to point you in the direction of Frederick Douglass Opie’s blog Food as a Lens.

Opie is the author of Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America and over the next few days, his blog will look at the African roots of some Thanksgiving staples but also offer some ways to incorporate soul food into your Thanksgiving meal and provide recipes as well.

Here’s Opie’s post on the simple but indispensable sweet potato, which came to the United States via West Africa:

Previous to the arrival of the sweet potato, most West Africans used yams in the absence of bread. Soon many other substitutes were available. Indonesian traders introduced the cocoyam from Southeast Asia; shortly thereafter, the cocoyam became part of the everyday meals of West Africans. This was especially pertinent in the equatorial forest regions. Because yams were such an essential part of this region’s culinary traditions, some nicknamed it the “yam belt.” By the nineteenth century, African Americans had clearly established a penchant in the south for yams and sweat potatoes. African-American cooks continued to grow and cook with yams and sweet potatoes. They consumed these staples like bread in the same way that their descendants had done in West Africa. By the mid-nineteenth century, slaves in Virginia had influenced their masters to eat the tubers the same way. At a big house table on a Virginia tobacco plantation, Journalist Frederick Law Olmsted recalled, “There was no other bread, and but one vegetable served—sweet potato, roasted in ashes, and this, I thought, was the best sweet potato, also, I ever had eaten. . . .”

And for a recipe…

I can recommend no better side dish for thanksgiving than a simple oven baked yam or sweet potato, baked in the oven in a cast iron skillet or cookie sheet for about an hour until the natural sugar just seeps out and caramelizes. I serve mine to my kids sliced down the middle and served with butter, a little sugar, cinnamon, and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice. Use organic yams or sweet potatoes, they a lot sweeter than conventional ones. In my house we eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

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