Sweet Potatoes


When I think of sweet potatoes, I think of my Grandma Hill and of Thanksgiving. The youngest of 10 children, Grandma Hill began life as a farmer’s daughter in Duplin County, NC. Over time she would become a farmer’s wife, mother and eventually grandmother. She moved and loved like someone who’s work was never done and rarely noticed. Grandma Hill was strong, always digging in the yard under a white brimmed hat, or making work in her kitchen look easy. She was matter of fact and not particularly warm or fuzzy. My mom always looked up to her and my grandma always protected my mom. 

I have this vision of Grandma Hill backing through our “glass porch” door with two casserole dishes in hand and a red wool pencil skirt brushing her stockinged calves. Her husband, Grandaddy Hill died from Alzheimer's in his early sixties, so Grandma forged a life without him and was a fixture at most Sunday lunches and certainly every holiday in our house. 

Today, it seems, the trend for family holidays is to have a million things on the table. We feel like we need to cover every base, but my Thanksgivings growing up were pretty simple and oddly satisfying. Mom made the turkey, and like the cliche, it was very dry. Under her supervision, my sister’s and I used the collard chopper, a bag of herbed bread crumbs, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to make the dressing. Mom always fixed rice and gravy and made a damn good pecan pie. Someone opened a can of cranberry sauce and my Grandma Hill did the rest. I’m pretty sure she brought stewed greens of some kind, but I never ate those, and she probably brought a dessert, but I don’t remember that either. What I do remember were her candied yams. They were mostly yam, little candy, spare spice. They were delicious. They were the first thing gone. 

From covered dish lunches and potlucks at church, I had seen the span of candied yam ideas out there. Even if I wasn’t obliged to taste, I was fascinated by the toasted marshmallow versions and the pecan, brown sugar streusel concoctions folks from my church placed on the endless buffet. Were these dessert? Were they safe?

Knowing what I know now, I bet they were freaking delicious, but my Grandma Hill had made me a vegetable snob, and I never even dipped the communal spoon into one of these fancy casseroles. Grandma Hill insisted that sweet potatoes as a vegetable side, candied yam-like or not, should not be muddled down by too much sugar or fluff. She did not tolerate excess in her vegetables and felt they should taste like themselves.

I’d like to think I learned a few things about vegetables from Grandma Hill. I would love for her to sit down at my Thanksgiving table, try my sides and give me hell.

Learn more about NC Sweet Potatoes