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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
Sweet potatoes: The other staff of life
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

James Cecil “Little Jimmy” Dickens had a full career of nearly 60 years as a country music performer and actor. His songs were often humorous as the diminutive Jimmy preferred. Some were based on experiences from extended family gatherings, where large numbers of kin might lead to scarce resources.

“A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed” is about crowded sleeping spaces. If the bed became full of people lying vertically, the only option was to lie horizontally at the foot of the bed. The tossing and turning of the fortunate ones made for a miserable night for anyone at the foot of the bed. Growing up, I shared beds with kinfolk, but never one that crowded. Little Jimmy painted a musical picture of misfortune and made it funny.

There was a feeding order at meal time — adult males first, then grown females and finally children. Country folks with hearty appetites did not fill up fast. Children’s wait for food could be long and a hungry child might be instructed to snack on a baked sweet potato. Or as Little Jimmy sang it, “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait.” Mother devised a different strategy, setting up the children at a small table in a different space with plates full of warm food. Custom could not stand up to her mothering.

A cold tater was not unusual fare. Prepared in many ways, sweet potatoes were almost as important as corn in the diet of South Georgia country people. They were and still are found in elegant dishes like pies, soufflés and casseroles as side dishes, desserts and snacks. Sliced lengthways down the tuber, they were and still are fried in deep oil as a side dish.

In the past, baking was the usual way of cooking them. Depending on the number of mouths to be fed, potatoes were baked regularly, ranging from daily to once a week. A large, flat baking pan was loaded with washed, unpeeled potatoes and baked in an oven at moderate heat until well done. Early instruction and much experience made experts of those who judged when a batch of potatoes was ready to be removed from the oven. Baking was the usual way to prepare them for immediate consumption, but also further use in pies, etc.

Baked potatoes still warm from the oven were excellent as a side dish, peeled and seasoned with butter — also without butter. They might be left on the table protected by a cloth covering. From that trove, hungry family members picked up a cold potato as a snack, going on with work or play while peeling and eating. In fact — and in spite of Little Jimmy’s complaint — cold sweet potatoes make nourishing fare. Tasty sweet, but not unhealthily so, they are rich in Vitamin A, iron and fiber. They are “good eating,” in the words of my late father-in-law, Troy Slater, who ate his share of them.

Because of their role in food supply, sweet potatoes were grown by most farmers every year. They began with a “draw” bed in early spring, planting undersized tubers from the previous year in well fertilized soil in an area protected from the cold. Some built a frame of boards or timbers for the bed and covered it on cold nights with cloth. Like Irish potatoes, sweets have numerous “eyes,” dimples from which new plants sprout. When plants are large enough to be moved from bed to garden, raised rows are prepared and the “draws” are transplanted far enough apart to allow space for new “roots” to develop under the soil.

In the field, the plants will tell the vigilant that they are at the end of their growing season. When leaves begin to turn yellow, it is time to “dig” the potatoes. Digging really meant rolling them out of the row with a plow. Eager hands made certain that every potato was unearthed. Ideally, a period of good weather allowed them to dry in the sun to make them sweeter and make them “keep” better. If they retain too much moisture, they will decay.

In the past, potatoes were stored in “banks” for future use. The Deep South is not suited for the root cellars of more northern climates. Instead, they were stored above ground in carefully designed earth-covered mounds. In a section of the household, grounds were protected from animals by fence, a well-drained plot of ground was cleared of plants and trash. It was covered with a layer of straw — usually pine straw — deep enough to keep the potatoes dry. They were placed on that bed, covered by another layer of straw and then covered with earth. The bank was designed so that air circulated from the bottom through the straw and out the top to prevent heat buildup. The breathing hole at the top was protected from rain by a board or metal suspended over it. Potatoes were removed for use through an extraction hole that was covered again after every use. Small ones were left behind to be used in the draw bed later.

No one banks sweet potatoes now. I know of no one who grows them for family use. It is too easy to visit a nearby commercial grower and buy a bucketful to be processed and stored in a freezer. They are available in grocery stores in their skins or in cans. The last time we grew them on the family farm, they produced well and guided by Daddy’s expertise we banked them. 

Later, when I was getting some out to cook, I found my hands aflame from the stings of fire ants that had taken over the bank for a cozy home. I wonder what Little Jimmy would sing about that if he were still with us.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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