Surprising Facts About the Humble Sweet Potato and Yam

Thanksgiving dinner image from the Rochester YMCA

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! As we take the day to count our blessings, I’m sure we will all be gobbling up plenty of turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and more. There is one traditional Thanksgiving treat, though, that I think is far too under-appreciated: the humble sweet potato. Or yam, if you prefer. It’s certainly one of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes, and not just because it goes so well with brown sugar and marshmallows. It’s also because the sweet potato, out of all the foods on your table today, has by far the most fascinating history.

For one thing, sweet potatoes and yams are not the same thing. While American cooks treat them roughly the same way and we use the two terms interchangeably, in fact the sweet potato and the yam are two very different plants with two very different origins. Both are tubers that are grown in the ground, just like potatoes, but they belong to completely different plant families. Yams are actually a group of similar plants native to Africa and Asia, while sweet potatoes are native to Central and South America and are a part of the same plant family as Morning Glory flowers.

Here's a Sweet Potato plant's flower...

Here’s a Sweet Potato plant’s flower…

...and a Morning Glory. See the similarities?

…and a Morning Glory. See the similarities?

Sweet potatoes tend to have smooth skins, moist textures, and naturally sweet tastes. Yams tend to have rough skins, dry textures, and starchy flavors. Another key difference is that yams will make you sick if you eat them raw – they have to be cooked to break down some slightly toxic chemicals in the raw root.

So why the confusion? Slavery is the culprit. African slaves who were brought to the New World thought some sweet potato varieties sort of resembled the yams they were used to back home, and the name stuck. Today, in order to reduce confusion, the U.S. government requires that if sweet potatoes are labelled as “Yams”, they must also be labelled as “Sweet Potatoes”. Actually, now that I think about it, wouldn’t that just make things more confusing?

In any case, sweet potatoes have been cultivated in the Americas since at least 3,000 BC, and possibly earlier. There are records of its cultivation by Native American farmers from Louisiana to Peru. Most interestingly, however, archaeologists have discovered that sweet potatoes were cultivated in Polynesia as early as 1000 AD – long before Christopher Columbus’s voyage! How did they get there?

Gee, I wonder.

Gee, I wonder.

Well, Polynesians were a well-known maritime civilization. After all, they had to sail from island to island to colonize the Pacific. They certainly had the technology to reach the Americas. Not only that, but it would have been theoretically possible for South Americans to reach Polynesia as well. In 1947, Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and five partners built a boat using materials and technologies that would have been widely available in ancient Peru, named the boat the Kon-Tiki, and set sail for Polynesia. It took them 101 days, but they made it, showing that such a voyage would have been theoretically possible. This feat has been replicated numerous times since then. Perhaps the sweet potato’s journey across the Pacific is proof that Columbus’s voyage wasn’t so unique after all.

"I could have told you that." -Leif Ericson

“I could have told you that.” -Leif Ericson

Whatever the truth is, we do know that sweet potatoes were an essential part of Colonial Americans’ diets, and as recently as the Civil War most large farms and plantations had dedicated areas to store the plants under a pile of straw to keep them warm during the winter. It was also during the Civil War, when shortages of coffee were frequent, that dried, ground sweet potatoes were brewed for that morning jolt instead.

If you think that’s strange, consider that in many parts of Asia and Latin America, they have found all manner of ways to serve sweet potatoes besides brown sugar and marshmallows. In southern China, Sweet Potato Soup is a common dessert; in the Philippines, it is sometimes served with fish sauce; and in South America, it is mixed with chocolate, jellied, and served as Dulce de Batata. The Japanese have even made sweet potato wines!

Pictured: Sweet potatoes.

Pictured: Sweet potatoes.

This Thanksgiving, when you sit down with your family to enjoy each others’ company, give a little more respect to that pot of sweet potatoes or yams. It may not be the main course, but it certainly has far more to it than meets the tongue.


Locals react to Morro Bay’s Food Bank distribution changes

There have been some radical changes to how food is distributed to local families in need in Morro Bay, and people are unhappy about it.

A few weeks ago, I visited a local program in Morro Bay where families in need could get fresh produce, meat, and other groceries at no cost. All of the food was donated from local sources, and all of the people distributing the food were volunteers. It seemed like a very smart and useful way for the community to pull together and keep those who have fallen on hard times from going hungry.

A mere week after I had made that video, my neighbor, who volunteers for this program, told me that the program was about to be cut back to one day a week instead of three. I began making calls, and found out the whole story.

Here is my report:

Morro Bay’s program is a part of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, which operates similar distribution centers in Arroyo Grande, Los Osos, Nipomo, San Luis Obispo, and Cayucos. At each of these locations, the Food Bank makes a once-a-week delivery on Wednesdays from its warehouse in Oceano, bringing prepared grocery bags full of donated produce. Every family takes a bag, and then if there are any extra donations they can pick-and-choose some of those.

Morro Bay’s program didn’t do this. Instead, they gave out food three days a week, depending on donations from local supermarkets like Albertson’s or Trader Joe’s, Cal Poly’s agriculture department, and local farmers. This meant deliveries were very inconsistent – they would sometimes be very large and sometimes be very small – but would also be very fresh. Morro Bay also let local families shop through all the available offerings and take what they needed or wanted.

What the Food Bank Coalition had done was tell Morro Bay that it had to comply with the same rules that the other communities were used to. Instead of picking up food directly from local sources, the Food Bank would collect the donations, store them in their warehouse until Wednesday, and then deliver them to the Veteran’s Hall to be distributed. Morro Bay residents who participate in the program now must come in on this one day each week and sign their name for a pre-prepared grocery bag.

According to Melinda Diaz, the Food Programs Manager at the Food Bank Coalition, Morro Bay’s deliveries will now be much more consistent. She also assured me that the changes will not affect the amount of food each family will receive. The people I spoke to confirmed as much, but complained that the food that they get now isn’t as fresh. Most of the supermarkets, after all, donate food that is at or near the sell-by date, in order to clear out space on their shelves for their next delivery. Under the new system, the donated food has been in storage for several days before delivery.

While I was filming, I noticed that the line of people waiting for food wasn’t as long as it had been the last time I had been there. I also noticed that the grand total amount of food that was delivered seemed smaller to my eyes, and that unlike the last time I was there, there was no meat available. I watched as people were called to the front by their assigned numbers; another change from last time, when the food was handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.

I had been told that there has been some tension with another event that is also held at the Veteran’s Hall on Wednesday mornings, if the delivery truck arrives late. However, it is unlikely that the program would be discontinued over a scheduling conflict. When I spoke with Joseph Woods, Morro Bay’s director of Recreation and Parks, he assured me that he would do what it takes to keep the program running.

If you want to help Morro Bay’s program by donating or volunteering, contact Don Beasley at (805) 704-8532 for further information.

Thor: The Dark World Shows Marvel’s Still Got It

Thor The Dark World image from Fansided

I have no idea what kind of magic Marvel Studios has been using for the past five years, but it is apparently still working. Who would have guessed when Marvel decided to film its own movies instead of subcontracting them out to established film companies like Fox or Sony Pictures, that they would pump out hit after hit after hit? Not only have they gone from not existing to one of Hollywood’s biggest powerhouses and trend-setters in just five years, but nearly all of the films they have made have been exceptionally good.

Okay, so... not quite all of them.

Okay, so… not quite all of them.

While there will inevitably come a day when Marvel Studios’s magic will run out and they’ll make some horrendous flops, it certainly isn’t today. Thor: The Dark World is an absolutely excellent action movie that surpasses even the original.

I feel almost guilty heaping so much praise on this movie, but when I tried to rack my brain to find anything wrong with it, I just couldn’t come up with anything. The action was well-balanced, the acting was great, the film kept the right balance between high stakes, emotional confrontations, and comedy relief, and it was all put together with excellent pacing. I would even go so far as to argue that this film is the most creative work Marvel Studios has put out thus far. We get to see much more of Asgard and the other aliens of this universe, and they are all given very interesting and smart designs that seem to draw equally from fantasy and sci-fi elements, creating a futuristic yet timeless feel. And, as always, the special effects team has outdone itself to create a breathtaking CGI spectacle.

Pictured: Film-making at its best.

Pictured: Film-making at its best.

The story this time centers around the “Dark-Elves”, creatures that apparently existed before the universe (however that’s supposed to be possible) and want to restore the universe to the way it was before, well, all of us existed. As far as villain plans go, this one is pretty cliché. It’s your run-of-the-mill “use magic object A at a very specific moment when plot device B is perfectly aligned” plan. At the end of the day, though, what makes this movie work is what they build on top of the formulaic foundation.

The focus of the movie isn’t really on the villains, but on the complicated dynamic between Thor (Chris Helmsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and their parents, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo). Loki’s actions in Thor and The Avengers are seen as a betrayal by his family, and they imprison him because they feel he can’t be trusted anymore. Then, the bad guys show up, and suddenly Thor finds that he can’t defeat them without Loki’s help, creating an awkward situation where Thor must bring him along. The awkward tension is palpable – you just don’t know what Loki intends to do, and whether he will choose to help his brother or the enemy.

Also, the human cast has a much bigger role in this movie than in the previous one. In Thor, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and Darcy (Kat Dennings) were basically there for comic relief more than anything else; their job was just to react to how strange and awkward Thor was in the unfamiliar setting of modern-day Earth. In this movie, they play a much bigger role. Jane actually goes to Asgard with Thor, and the human characters play a major role in defeating the main villain at the end. This seemed much more engaging to me, especially given how weak and vulnerable humans are in this universe by comparison.

If I had to find even the tiniest weakness in the movie, it is that it is definitely a victim of “sequelhood”. The film expects its audience to have seen both Thor and The Avengers, so if you have seen neither, some plot points might not make very much sense. That is really nit-picking, though, and I think it’s fair to say that most of the film’s intended audience will find that the references to prior movies fit right in. Thor: The Dark World is just plain good, pure and simple.

Thanks to all of our nation’s veterans for their service. We salute you.

“Ender’s Game” Adaptation is a Success!

Ender's Game Image from Hollywood Reporter

Sorry for the long wait since my last post. Things have been pretty busy these past few weeks. I did, however, manage to get to the theater and see Ender’s Game, the film adaptation of one of the classics of American sci-fi.

That a film like this was even made is something of a miracle, as efforts to make an Ender’s Game movie a reality have been ongoing for my whole life. When the novel was published in 1985, people almost immediately proposed turning it into a movie. However, project after project fell apart in pre-production due to the novel’s writer, Orson Scott Card, micromanaging the script writing process. Eventually, Card was able to give his baby into the hands of Gavin Hood, an actor in numerous films and TV shows (Stargate SG-1, A Reasonable Man) who has also directed such movies as Tsotsi, Rendition, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Hood both wrote and directed this film, and even was a voice-actor for a very minor role. At the very end of the film’s credits, there is a dedication to Hood’s parents, which tells me this movie was a personal, passion project for him.

Indeed, the direction Hood took with this film is also very personal – it focuses almost completely on the titular hero, Ender Wiggin, played by British teenage actor Asa Butterfield (Hugo, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), and his complicated relationship with his commanding officer, Col. Graff (Harrison Ford). Fans of the novel may be disappointed that some of the world-building and political-intrigue elements of the novel are gone, as may be one or two of their favorite scenes. In the end, though, this is to the film’s benefit, not its detriment. By keeping the film tight and focused, it is able to dedicate all of its effort in building a believable, well-rounded character and his struggles and triumphs. It absolutely excels at this, making its hero someone that the audience can relate to and wants to cheer on.

For those who don’t know the story, Ender’s Game is set in a future where the Earth had narrowly survived an attack by a race of insect-like aliens known as the Formics, and now the International Fleet, a military force dedicated to defending the planet from any future Formic attack, actively trains young boys and girls from around the world in a three-tier program to create a super-elite, dedicated officer corps of military geniuses. Ender, the third child of a Polish immigrant living in America, is also the third of his siblings to be enrolled in the program. The failures of his older brother and sister to qualify for promotion into the second tier haunts him, and he is absolutely dedicated to proving himself to his superiors. Ender is nerdy, introverted, and a bit of a loner, but he has a brilliant mind for tactics and strategy that impresses Col. Graff, who begins to push Ender harder and harder in his training and to pull strings to put Ender on the fast-track to success.

The film has two main running themes that complement each other beautifully. The first has to do with bullying, the favorite pastime of many a high-school age boy. Probably most people in the audience have been picked on at one point or another growing up, and can therefore feel Ender’s pain as he is picked on by his peers. Throughout the movie, Ender stands up to his own bullies, as well as those who bully other kids, making the viewer sympathize with and root for him.

However, in standing up for himself and others, Ender discovers to his horror that he is capable of incredible acts of violence. This darker side of him scares him, makes him nervous, and gives him self-doubt. He begins to question if he truly is worthy of Col. Graff’s special treatment, and becomes fearful of what he would do in actual combat against the Formics. This grappling with one’s own capacity for aggression and violence is the second running theme of the movie, and is by far its strongest point. The film handles this theme with care and doesn’t go overboard with it – after all, it wants us to keep liking Ender and keep rooting for him, so when he does lash out we feel Ender’s shock and anxiety.

The filmmakers definitely deserve plenty of credit for their casting choices. These twin themes are not easy to pull off, let alone by a cast filled with a bunch of under-18 actors. This could easily have been an epic disaster.

We all know how bad...

We all know how bad…

...child actors can be.

…child actors can be.

Yet this particular cast works incredibly well, being completely believable in their roles as they react to the incredible things that are going on all around them. They even manage to do a surprisingly good job with the very weighty and emotional ending. (No, I’m not going to spoil it, but fans of the novel know exactly what I’m talking about.) They really deliver when it counts.

Ender's Game image from Enderverse

Having said all of that, the film does have some weak moments in the beginning. The biggest problem with anything sci-fi is exposition, as you have to explain your universe and its rules to the audience while not breaking the flow of the story. The movie really drops the ball with that one. Most of the early exposition scenes consist of Ender and/or other characters having stuff explained to them that they should already know by now, unless they lived under a rock their whole lives. Plus, the filmmakers’ CGI budget must have been blown in post-production, because they keep showing the same battle sequence from the first Formic invasion over and over and over again. Um, guys, weren’t there other battles with the invaders you could show us? Yes, the particular scene in question does become important later, but that doesn’t mean we have to re-watch it 800 times. Trust your audience to be able to piece two and two together, please.

Still, these are far from deal-breakers. This movie is an excellent adaptation, and an excellent sci-fi movie generally. It may be less than two hours long, but it is two well-spent hours that I highly recommend.