You Say Potato, I Say Yam is the title of a piece in The New York Times op-ed section written by Jessica B. Harris, an English professor and African-American woman:
On Oct. 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday of November to be a national holiday of Thanksgiving. That came just over a year after Lincoln made another more historic proclamation, one that directly concerned my family and their future: the Emancipation Proclamation, which had freed the enslaved in any territory “in rebellion.” …
Sweet potatoes are New World tubers that were adopted by enslaved Africans on the American continent. They could be grown in the temperate climates; they could be stored in mounds and used as needed to supplement meager rations. When cooked in the ashes of a dying fire, they were a sweet treat at the end of a bone-tiring day of toil. Most important, sweet potatoes were taken to the hearts and stomachs of Africans and their descendants in the United States because they recalled the true yam of Africa.
The yam, a large hairy tuber that bears no botanical relationship to the sweet potato, grows mainly in tropical and subtropical climates and is of primary importance to many West African societies. From Ghana to Nigeria, yam festivals celebrate the desire for a bounteous harvest and the continuity of life. In languages of the West African coast, including Wolof in Senegal and Umbundu in Angola, the tuber is so popular that some variant of the word “yam” simply means “to eat.”
Slavers transporting captives from those areas on the Middle Passage provisioned themselves with yams sufficient for the voyages. But once ashore in more temperate America, the slaves found that the African tuber was unavailable, and thus substituted it with the sweet potato — leading to centuries of botanical and gastronomic confusion. (More recently, though, true yams imported from the tropics have become available in ethnic markets in this country.)
Today Thanksgiving thrives as a beloved national feast celebrated by Americans of all ethnic origins and religions. It has expanded with the country beyond the traditional foods like turkey and corn and pumpkins that remind us of the Pilgrims’ feast and the generosity of the American Indians. On many African-American tables, next to the dressed bird, there will be a sweet potato dish, be it a casserole, a pone, a pie or the classic candied sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows.
We may call the starring ingredient sweet potatoes or, erroneously, yams, but no matter their appellation they are a culinary reminder of our national history and deserving of a place at the Thanksgiving feast.
Nearly 150 years after Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, the United States has a first family that is a direct reflection of the Emancipation Proclamation that preceded the national holiday. It seems fitting, at our various communal tables, to muse on Lincoln’s two proclamations, to consider just how far we have come and to remember all that for which we should be thankful. I hope that at the White House they are serving sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving.
This has been a tough year economically and the country is riven with dissension on health care, cap-and-trade, the war in Afghanistan and much else.
Unemployment continues to rise, which means suffering continues to increase and, perhaps a quarter of the population owes more on their homes than the homes are worth.
Yet we think Professor Harris is right… it behooves us all to use this Thanksgiving to reflect on the journey America has traveled, a journey of ever-increasing freedom for ever-increasing numbers of people.
As bleak as things may seem sometimes, as difficult as one’s troubles appear, it is worth remembering that virtually everyone who reads these words is a lottery winner. For in the long history of man on earth, the vast, vast majority of people have been born in times and places where they never could dream of living the life that even poor Americans get to live.
On this quintessentially American holiday, it is worth remembering that there are few burdens in the world that could outweigh the enormous blessing of being born an American.
As we sit down at our Thanksgiving table, this Pundit will give thanks for his family, thanks that we have the opportunity to do useful and interesting work, thanks for good friends, thanks for science that saved the lives of both a child and a father, thanks that never one day in life have we ever known hunger, nor feared not having shelter or clothing, we will give thanks that we can worship as we choose and have the leisure to learn.
And, of course, we will give more than a little thanks that somehow, someway, people in every state and over 100 countries around the world choose to spend some time with this most Perishable Pundit.
Thanks and a Happy Thanksgiving to all.