10 February 2009
In South Carolina, we are familiar with the legend of The Swamp Fox, whose real name was Frances Marion. Hiding out with his men in the swamps of the low country, he and his rag-tag band of men managed to stage surprise raids on the British during the Revolutionary War. They waged a type of guerrilla warfare, staying in the swamp until they attacked, and then disappearing back into the swamp from which they emerged. Using the strategy of hiding in the swamps, they "outfoxed" the British, hence the name "Swamp Fox".
The British were not able to follow Marion into the swamps, for three main reasons. They did not know the geography of the land, they had no supply of food there, and the swamps were infested with deadly malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Food in the remote, swampy wilderness was a major issue, as indeed it was across the entire frontier.
I once visited the remnants of a British outpost in the low-country of South Carolina. It was built upon a high "Indian Mound" in the middle of an expansive marsh. The literature at this outpost stated that the supply chain was a crucial, and ultimately fatal, issue for this particular outpost.
The Patriots (those seeking independence from Britain) were able to defeat the soldiers at this outpost only after they broke the supply line and stopped the supply of food reaching it from the British garrison at Charleston, about 100 miles away. What was most interesting was the presence in that museum of letters which had been written by the commanding officer of that outpost to his superiors concerning their food supply.
The commanding officer, basically, said that the British soldiers could not be expected to eat the same wretched, inferior, local food which was relied upon upon by the Patriots. The Patriots, it was said, lived on native tubers which were most distasteful and base. It was implied that the Patriots’ ability to eat the native foods was evidence of their crude and lowly way of life, a lifestyle scorned by the more upper class British soldiers who were disgusted by this kind of diet.
What were these native tubers? The food that enabled Frances Marion and his fellow patriots to survive in the swamps (and which was scorned by the British) was the yam, or sweet potato.
I understand that sweet potatoes are remarkably nutritious, particularly when combined with some dairy. (And while there was not yet any cure for malaria, it is said that the Swamp Fox improved the odds for his men somewhat by having them mix in a teaspoon of vinegar into their drinking water. This caused a slight alteration of their blood chemistry so that they were less prone either to being bitten by mosquitoes or to developing malaria.)
Since the sweet potato was crucial to the Patriots ability to function, and since the disruption of the food supply chain was a critical component of the British inability to defend its frontier against the Patriots, I would say that this little tuber has also had a role to play in the formation of the United States! The sweet potato continued to be a staple of the pioneer diet long beyond the time of the Revolutionary War. In records of my own family’s farm dating from the mid 19th Century, sweet potatoes and corn were the two staple food crops, accounting for about 90% of the land under cultivation.
Needless to say, then, sweet potatoes are a significant component of traditional family dinners in the American South. Particularly at Thanksgiving, practically no Southerner considers her table complete without the presence of a casserole made from sweet potatoes. These casseroles generally fall under the category of being sinfully rich — usually mixed with sugar and eggs and cream, then sprinkled on top with a crust and baked so that it resembles a dessert more than a vegetable. (Yum! Just thinking of my Aunt Barbara’s casserole makes me covet her recipe!) But, my goal of cooking yummy food for my family must be tempered with the need for healthiness and nutrition.
Speaking of nutrition, sweet potatoes are packed with it. Because of this, they continue to play a role in nutrition around the globe. One sweet potato, by itself, has only 95 calories but delivers more than twice the daily requirement of Vitamin A. Sweet potatoes are also rich in Vitamin C, manganese, copper, fiber, Vitamin B 6, potassium, and iron. They are often baked and sold by street vendors in China. People purchase them, peel them with their fingers, and eat them as a street food. Indeed, for a tourist concerned about germs in food (food poisoning) sweet potatoes are a pretty safe bet as long as one is sure they are fresh and hot.
In South Carolina, I was only familiar with one kind of tuber we call the "sweet potato," but when I got to China I encountered many, many more varieties. Orange, white, blue, yellow, large and small. Some are sweeter, some more tender, others more starchy. I don’t have a complete sampling, but here are two shots from one food market in Guangzhou:
Indeed, I think I purchased some of those sweet potatoes in the upper photo and used them to make the recipe which I will now give instructions to make — Vegan Sweet Potato Casserole. The good thing about my casserole is that by eliminating some of the animal fat and reducing the sugar, it’s still pretty healthy, yet addition of some vegan butter, fruit, sugar and spice means it’s pretty tasty, too. Because it’s so light and fluffy, I venture to call it Sweet Potato Souffle.
Ingredients: 3 large sweet potatoes (about 1 and 1/2 pounds total), 1 cup fresh, chopped pecans, 1/3 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup granola, 1/3 cup vegan margarine, 1/2 cup white flour, 4 teaspoons baking powder (preferably Borwicks brand), 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 orange, 1 teaspoon vanilla, Egg Replacer equivalent of four eggs.
First, boil three large sweet potatoes until they are soft enough to mash easily with a fork. Use a variety that is large and orange colored. While these potatoes boil, peel an orange and remove the pulp. Then, chop the orange flesh into pieces the size of the tip of your finger.
There is also going to be a topping on top of this casserole. To make this topping, mix 1/3 cup vegan butter, 1/2 cup granola, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and 1/2 cup chopped, fresh pecans. Place this mixture aside.
In another bowl, mix together 1/2 cup white flour, 4 teaspoons baking powder (preferably Borwick’s brand), 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 cup pecans. (This will be mixed in with the potatoes after they are mashed.) Set aside.
After the potatoes are soft, mash them with a fork. Add in 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Then, mix up enough "Egg Replacer"* brand powder to make the equivalent of four eggs, and add this into the sweet potatoes. Then add in the oranges, and finally add in the dry ingredients which you had previously set aside. Mix together. If the mixture seems too dry, add some oat or soy milk until it is soft like congealed pudding.
Spread this into a casserole dish, then spread the brown sugar topping over the top of the dish. Finally, bake at 350 degrees F for about 40 minutes or until it has risen and set.
Now, enjoy some good, Patriot roots and tubers!
*If you don’t have access to Egg Replacer, mix 3/4 tsp rice vinegar into some soy milk and use that as a leavening agent. It won’t work as well to lighten the sweet potato, but it will work a small amount. The casserole will still be tasty but just not as fluffy.