Story behind harvesting sweet potatoes

Published 11:05 am Saturday, December 1, 2012

by James D. Howell

Just beyond our vegetable garden fence, the first few rows are given over to sweet potatoes instead of whatever row-crop is planned for the field.

In early spring, several rows have been plowed and “hilled” ready for planting. The hilled rows are flattened by dragging a board behind a tractor cultivator set low enough to take off about half the height.

Before the tractor came along, this job was done by driving a mule or horse up and down each row to produce the planting bed. Raising the level of the planting bed helps to warm the soil in early spring and provides for proper drainage so seeds or plants will not rot. These rows will be for sweet potatoes, a staple winter food.

My father returns from either Mr. Council’s plant farm or one of the ubiquitous country stores with a supply of plants. They’re freshly dug and bound together with a rubber band.

Some local people build their own seedbed for sweet potatoes and sell their excess to other gardeners or farmers.

Our seedlings are planted about two feet apart, in rows about four feet apart. The vines will grow quickly and prolifically to cover the empty space, usually preventing weeds and other grasses.

Sweet potatoes need little attention if planted properly; insects don’t seem to be a problem.

We use a pointed stick with a cross brace set at about six inches for depth. Each plant is set into the hole and a little water added. The hole is backfilled, but not packed down.

Sweet potatoes like light sandy soil, and we have a lot of that. The vines are cold sensitive; mature potatoes must be harvested and stored before heavy frost.

At harvest, thin-wood slatted, one-bushel baskets are used. The potatoes are dug up by a specialty “digger” — little more than a blade with long tongs to lift potatoes from the soil.

Dug potatoes are allowed to dry for a day or two; then, all available hands pick up each tuber and place it into waiting baskets.

Baskets have a lid that is secured to wire loops fitted into the basket rim. Wire handles are also fitted into the basket rim.

Baskets are strong, but not airtight, allowing air to circulate during storage. Full baskets are stored temporarily until the harvest is complete.

Full baskets, except for short-term cooking needs, are loaded up and transported to Mr. Council’s.

Mr. Council has a large barn used as a potato house. It’s insulated against the cold and has a heater to keep the barn warm.

Floors and walls are slatted to allow warm air to flow around stored baskets; sweet potatoes are cold sensitive.

Our potatoes are marked on the basket top with our name and moved to a carefully registered, assigned storage place. A fee is paid for each basket stored.

During future months, our potatoes may be retrieved from storage at a leisurely pace for household use or sale. Mr. Council does a good business with local farmers.

Sweet potatoes are cooked in a pot with water (steamed), sliced and fried in lard, baked whole, and made into candied yams — a dish made with brown sugar and butter filled layers of sliced baked potatoes, sometimes topped with marshmallows.

Candied yams often show up at festivities or celebrations where meals are served. Similar dishes made with mashed sweet potatoes occasionally show up, but candied seems to be the dish of choice.

Breakfast sometimes includes baked sweet potatoes sliced and fried in a little lard; I especially like the caramelized outer edges, crunchy and sweet. Thanksgiving is a time for sweet potato pie. Pumpkins are yet to be discovered in our area as a fall food.

The “gassy” part of sweet potatoes is not mentioned in polite company, but is certainly part of the earthier side of private family life.

I arrive home after school and head for the kitchen. It’s always a bright moment when baked sweet potatoes, still warm, are waiting to be peeled. I go to the back storage room and scrape out a saucer full of cracklins from their “stand,” peel away the dry outer skin of the potato and sop its juicy end into the saucer of cracklins. Yum.

I will learn about comfort food in the future; today I enjoy all the warmth, smell and taste of home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL  is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at