Here in South Carolina, we sure dig sweet potatoes, literally and colloquially speaking. Take a drive down most any country back road and you’re likely to spot one or more produce stands with signs touting their “swee’taters.” Grown on more than 2,000 acres across the state, this relative of the Morning Glory (but not the potato!) is a key ingredient in many of our most beloved recipes. This is especially true during the holidays when warm aromas of sweet potato dishes spiked with nutmeg and other wondrous things emanate from Southern kitchens.
On the second Saturday in October, the town of Darlington puts its racing stripes aside to present the South Carolina Sweet Potato Festival, a special salute to a rousing local favorite. And if you like to indulge year-round, you’ll find sweet potato-something on restaurant menus all across the Palmetto State. We really are a sweet potato lover’s paradise.
Sweet tater roots
If you are grateful for the sweet potato’s presence in your life, thank a colonist. Native to South and Central America, they were likely introduced to the New World by early European settlers. In the early 17th century, Edisto Island and surrounding farms of the Lowcountry were hotbeds of sweet potato cultivation. By mid-century, the crop actually knocked cotton out of the top spot as an agricultural commodity in the Beaufort area. To further solidify its standing as a significant South Carolina product, our very own Revolutionary War hero, General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, and his crafty band of men relied upon sweet potatoes for fortification of the nutritional kind. For this alone, it seems fitting that the entire nation owes a debt of gratitude to these vitamin A-rich root tubers.
All-purpose and surprising
Aside from overall deliciousness, sweet potatoes have loads of versatility. Yes, you can turn them into fries, hash, breads, pies, souffles, puddings, casseroles, spreads and flavorful mashes, but the reality goes far beyond the confines of the kitchen. Botanical genius and American historical figure Dr. George Washington Carver envisioned sweet potato possibilities and developed more than 100 uses for them, including writing ink, shoe blacking, synthetic silk, paper and library paste, like the kind you used to lick in kindergarten class. The list goes on and on, but for our purposes here, we will stick to the more rudimentary culinary uses.
Give thanks for the tastiness
Now, about the role of sweet potatoes on the Thanksgiving Day table: This timeline squashes any notion that they were part of that first feast. If you’ve been including them as an authentic touch, no need for embarrassment though. The best reason for serving up luscious sweet potatoes in any form is a desire to please the palates of your family and guests. After all, good eating is the most time-honored South Carolina tradition of all.
A smashing South Carolina dish
Head to the roadside market or your local grocer for some rosy, locally grown sweet potatoes to make this aromatic casserole. But drop that bag of marshmallows! In this recipe, we up the regional flavors and add an irresistible, crunchy contrast with a topping made from South Carolina pecans and benne wafers, a buttery, sesame seed-like cookie popular in the Lowcountry.
South Carolina Sweet Potato Casserole
3 cups sweet potato, cooked, peeled and mashed
½ cup white sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 stick of butter, melted
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the topping:
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons butter
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup pecans, coarsely chopped
½ cup benne wafers, crushed
In a large bowl, use a hand mixer to combine mashed sweet potato, white sugar, eggs, stick of butter, nutmeg and vanilla. Spread mixture in a greased baking dish. Combine all topping ingredients and sprinkle evenly over the top of the casserole. (To crush benne wafers, pulse lightly in a food processor until you achieve coarse crumbs.) Place casserole in a pre-heated, 350-degree oven and bake until the top is toasty brown, about 30 minutes. Note: You can find benne wafers online through local businesses like Old Colony Bakery, at area farmers markets and in grocery stores that stock South Carolina products. An additional ½ cup of pecans may be substituted.