The Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes

Thanksgiving dinner was always a time for heated discussion in our family. We debated the merits of serving a pasta dish before the turkey. We always wound up serving pasta because that’s what we liked. Turkey not so much. “Don’t fill up on the pasta. Save room for the turkey,” the women cautioned. As for the turkey, we gave it a passing nod and went for the stuffing. I suspect that won’t change this Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving wasn’t official unless we had soup. Escarole with little meatballs. One year my late brother-in-law insisted on making the soup. Apparently something went wrong because he served it with bits of hot dogs floating in the broth. He lost his credibility as the food critic in the family on that day. But Larry, my late brother-in-law, was a provocateur.

Each Thanksgiving he would start a debate over whether the potatoes on the table were yams or sweet potatoes. None of us were sure there was a difference. He assured us there was a difference. And off we’d go debating the question. We didn’t really care. But he’d keep the discussion going until we were exhausted. The next Thanksgiving he’d begin the debate all over again. Larry is gone, but the question of whether there’s a difference between yams and sweet potatoes still lingers in my head. I finally decided to look it up.

I’m here to apologize to my late brother-in-law. Not only are there differences between yams and sweet potatoes, they don’t even look alike.

All of us know what sweet potatoes look like. They have orange, smooth flesh. The skin on a sweet potato is thin and papery. As the name implies, sweet potatoes are sweet. For some godforsaken reason, some folks serve them with marshmallows on top. People either love or hate sweet potatoes. There is no in-between. Marshmallows are candy, not food. Best save your marshmallows for hot cocoa. Sweet potatoes should be served mashed with a pad of butter. Otherwise you have no business in the kitchen. And if Larry were still around, he’d tell you to stop mistaking your dish of sweet potatoes for yams. Don’t be a stoonad.

Yams originate in Africa. Their skin is rough and brown like the bark of a tree. The flesh is yellowish. Yams taste more like a regular potato, according to some. They are said to be starchier than a sweet potato. To make it more confusing, some folks like their yams served sweet like sweet potatoes. Why they just don’t buy sweet potatoes is beyond me. Instead they serve what are called “candied” yams.

Sweet potatoes on the other hand come in various varieties and colors. They have different levels of sweetness.

I suspect that despite this tutorial, many of you will continue to mistake sweet potatoes for yams. You still may not care which is which. Some of you stoonads will still serve your sweet potatoes with tiny marshmallows. That’s OK.  Just know that you’ll have to deal with my brother-in-law in the afterlife.

When I was a kid, my main concern at Thanksgiving was that my mother served capon and not turkey. That really upset me. If turkey was being served all over America for Thanksgiving, why were we eating capon? Were we second-class citizens? Each year I’d ask my mother to buy a turkey. It became a contest of wills. Mom would grant my foodie desires almost any other time, but for some reason she wouldn’t buy a turkey. Despite my annual protestations, she insisted on serving capon. Freshly killed and castrated.

Mom insisted that capon was juicier than turkey. That didn’t make sense to me. If capon tasted better than turkey, why was everyone else I knew eating turkey on Thanksgiving?

I learned later in life that capon was a castrated rooster. Where the hell is PETA when we need them? It’s one thing to be slaughtered for our dinner, but it seems to me that castration is a bridge too far. Do they castrate the rooster before or after it’s killed? I think that’s an important ethical question I never hear discussed. How do they choose which roosters get to keep their privates and those that are destined to lose their private parts in the service of becoming a juicy dinner?

Things have changed. For one thing my high potassium levels won’t permit me to eat potatoes of any kind. Doesn’t matter whether they’re yams or sweet potatoes. I’ve come to realize that I have never actually tasted a yam in my life. And I don’t feel deprived.

Thanksgiving is different in other ways. Santa Claus no longer climbs up a ladder into Gimbels like the old days. The Lions don’t always play the Packers at 12 noon. My mother-in-law Rose is no longer here to playfully “cheat” at Michigan Rummy.

And somewhere along the way, we stopped serving capon for Thanksgiving. There are a lot of grateful roosters crowing about that fact. Probably because we get a free turkey from the local supermarket nowadays. By the way, don’t you think the value of turkey at Thanksgiving has been devalued when you can get one free?

I’ll pass on the turkey and sweet potatoes. Send over the pasta.