At the end of the Fall leading into the Winter months, common sweet potatoes start popping up everywhere to live up to their name. Although the names “yam” and “sweet potato” are used interchangeably, there are really no true yams grown in the US, only sweet potatoes. Biologically they are different, and the name “yam” traversed oceans and mountainous terrain to reach us, but falls short for accuracy, a story for another time. With that said, of the sweet potatoes grown commercially in the US, there are but only a few varieties if that many. This “few varieties” approach is used for most of our large scale agriculture practices to feed the masses. There is a whole host of reasons protesting this approach, reasons fo, yes. You guessed it, another time. My point is that you miss out on all the other types of the same vegetable or food that is available non-commercially. These can be found at your local food co-op, farm, farm market or specialty store. Each one is a little different, offering a new journey into taste, preparation, selection, and use; enter the Heirlooms.
To be an heirloom vegetable or fruit, most people would say that it is a variety cultivated prior to 1951 which is when then first plant hybrids were introduced. Yes, that is a good marker, but lots of heirloom seeds (peppers, eggplant, corn, potatoes, lettuce, etc.) currently available belong to cultivars dating back into the 20’s and 30’s. So what makes these genetically diverse heirloom sweet potatoes so great? Taste, taste, taste, and texture. These living artifacts are harvested and than cured so that they can last you through the long cold winters as a sweet treat. Curing takes some time but it allows for the potato to covert its starches to sugars as well as healing itself of any cuts or bruises. Like a recipe passed down from your great grandparents, these heirlooms should be treasured greatly.
Nutritionally speaking, orange sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbs, beta carotene, fiber and vitamin C. The other varieties are as well, but some like the Nancy Hall and Old Fashion Whites have less beta carotene and more vitamin C due to their flesh color. I have the privilege of carrying the following local sweets (with a description of their tastes and textures):
Nancy Hall—a classic favorite of gardeners which have a milky, pale-yellow flesh which is extremely juicy
Old Fashioned White— dry, white flesh and very sweet
Beauregard—lower in sugar than the others heirlooms, it is the most common variety grown and possesses the standard deep orange flesh
Old Fashion Yellow— nicknamed the “dry yellow”, this sweet potato is slightly sweeter than the White and possesses a dry, fibrous flesh
Take some home today!