Strong Roots


Sweet Potato in Pop Culture

The humble sweet potato is probably best known in Ireland via American pop culture. Sit-com mothers make sweet potato pie; the characters in Friends refer to sweet potato in just about every thanksgiving episode; and the tasty root vegetable has been seen on fork-ends and on plates in everything from gritty American indie films to gentle, glossy rom-coms.

Drama, conflict, comedy and get-togethers in pop culture have been nourished by the sweet potato: Sweet potato pie makes an appearance in a classic thanksgiving episode of The Fresh Prince of Bell Air. And that dish was also the basis for a Married with Children episode, which saw Al (Ed O’Neill, now best-known for Modern Family) in desperate pursuit of a legendary sweet potato pie for thanksgiving.

On the same American secular holiday, Brad Pitt’s character angrily demands yams in an episode of Friends. Yams are – depending on the strain – often a close relative to sweet potatoes. And in some parts of the world, sweet potatoes are simply referred to as yams.

The sweet potato has (ahem) roots in Africa, South American and the United States, so it’s not surprising that it’s celebrated in each culture in unique ways. Ghana holds a Yam Festival every year at the beginning of August, celebrating the root vegetable, distributing them to villagers and holding traditional ceremonies that refer to old religions.

The New Yam Festival in South East Nigeria is a celebration of the vegetable and the first harvest of the year and it involves dance, music and spiritual ceremonies, thanking the spirits for the harvest. There’s even a full-length Nigerian film called Sweet Potato.

There are numerous festivals, rituals and even taboos relating to yams and sweet potatoes, from Papa New Guinea to Tonga and even the Japanese island of Rishiri.

The sweet potato – and its cousin the yam – has inspired many artists and writers, of varying degrees of competence. If you’re feeling especially brave, you can check out the bizarre novelty pop song “Your Love is like a Sweet Potato” here. We appreciate the sentiment, but not the squeaky helium voice and banal lyrics.

An altogether tastier song inspired by the food can be found here, performed by North Carolina band Sweet Potato Pie. With warm fiddles and lovely harmonies, it’s a cute and catchy tribute to North Carolina’s state vegetable. Sample lyric: “Sweet Potatoes naturally/got a lot favour keeps you lean and mean/you’re really gonna love ’em a lot/just listen to what they’ve got/Vitamins B6, A and D/Loaded with beta carotene.”

Of course, sweet potatoes can be enjoyed regardless of whether you’re a sit-com writer, curator of African festivals or a songwriter, but it’s nice to know that it’s inspiring so many artists of so many flavours.

By Joe Griffin


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