Tubers Highlight Holiday Dinners


Did you know the two dishes that share a name and a spotlight at Thanksgiving aren’t related? Both are root vegetables, and both are native to Central and South America. Sweet potatoes belong to a group of flowering plants in the morning glory family – Convolvulaceae. Potatoes belong to the nightshade or Solanaceae family and are cousins to peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants.

Both derive their common name, batata, from a Caribbean term that morphed into “potato.” In the mid-1700s “sweet” was added to the orange-fleshed tuber to differentiate the two crops.

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But wait that’s not all … there is another root crop, yams, also unrelated, and served interchangeably with sweet potatoes. Yams belong to the Dioscoreaceae family.

Sweet potatoes have tapered ends and relatively smooth skin while true yams are typically larger with rough skin and a more cylindrical shape.

George Washington Carver, associated with legume peanuts, advised farmers how to grow tubers and eat them. His research included the development of recipes and other food products made from sweet potatoes. One of his most successful inventions was using sweet potatoes to stretch World War II rations during a wheat shortage. It’s still available today as a gluten-free baking alternative!

Which tuber is healthier? That’s a story for another time.