Sweet potato: The holidays’ fleeting friend

To most people, sweet potatoes are a revered part of Thanksgiving dinner. To devotees like Lloyd Price, they have become a crusade.

A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Louisiana native is best known for his hit ”Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” which topped the rhythm and blues charts for seven weeks in 1952. These days, he uses the song’s fictional temptress as the brand name for his personal effort to boost sweet-potato consumption.

His new company, Lloyd Price Icon Food Brands Inc., boasts 16 sweet-potato products in its Miss Clawdy line, including pies, pretzels, muffins and frozen sweet-potato cheesecake on a stick. Wal-Mart stores in several southern states are now selling his sweet-potato cookies.

”It’s going to do things,” the 74-year-old Mr. Price declares. ”It’s going to bring attention back to the sweet potato.”

People in his business hope something soon does. While the sweet potato is treated like culinary royalty at this time of year, once the holidays are over, it might as well be a turnip. About 75 percent of canned sweet-potato sales come between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and 40 percent of the fresh crop is shipped during the last quarter of the year.

Since 1970, annual per capita consumption of turkey more than doubled, and cranberries are up tenfold. The sweet potato (or Ipomoea batatas) has bumbled through the same period at around four pounds a year, trailing celery and not within a whiff of 1920 levels, when per capita sweet-potato consumption peaked at 29.5 pounds.

Sometimes marketed as a ”yam” – the rough-skinned tropical vegetable that is even sweeter – the sweet potato cemented its standing as a Thanksgiving tradition early in the past century, some researchers say. That’s when recipes began pairing canned sweet potatoes with a sweet, packaged product that’s still a favorite in late-November cuisine. ”It was definitely the marshmallows,” says Rick Rodgers, author of the book ”Thanksgiving 101.”

As Americans moved to the cities, the sturdy vegetable that helped keep the Continental Army on the march during the Revolutionary War lost favor and higher-income consumers shifted to fancier fare.

The sweet potato is high in fiber and vitamins A and C, but ”its image hasn’t yet made the changeover from the poor man’s food to the intelligent food of choice,” says Jack Osman. A health science professor at Towson University in Maryland, he has had little luck interesting food companies in his purple passion pie and other sweet-potato confections.

Mr. Osman is part of a quirky bunch of growers, scientists and promoters who have spent years fruitlessly searching for the brave new taste twist that could give sweet potatoes the kind of boost that fast-food fries provided for white potatoes.

Many boosters believe processing sweet potatoes into more varied and convenient forms is crucial, pointing to the growing popularity of sweet-potato chips, whose sales have more than doubled since 2003, according to Nielsen Co., the information and media concern. Even so, their total annual sales remain below $12 million, less than what white potato chips sell in a day.

Stanley Kays, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia, is convinced that the strong flavor of traditional American sweet potatoes has inhibited their broader use in processed foods. He and Wayne McLaurin, a former colleague, spent years breeding an unorthodox sweet potato dubbed the GA-16. ”It’s not sweet, and it’s white,” says Mr. Kays.

Zimbabwe and North Korea showed a fleeting interest in growing it, he says, but the GA-16 went nowhere. Its peak moment of fame came in 2001, when Jay Leno pointed out that the world already had a popular, bland white spud – the potato. Mr. McLaurin has since found safer ground crossbreeding azaleas at Mississippi State University. Mr. Kays has moved on to rice.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have hedged their bets. While developing a purple-fleshed sweet potato rich in pigments that have shown promise as cancer fighters, they’ve also taken a giant step into the sweet-potato unknown, breeding a plant that produces nothing at all to eat.

Adorned with foliage that comes in shades of purple, red and green, the ”Sweet Caroline” variety is designed to be a flower-garden ornamental. ”We just want pretty tops,” says Craig Yencho, a horticulture professor at North Carolina State.

In the 1990s, the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission set out to buff up the vegetable’s image by introducing a sweet-potato-shaped mascot named Spencer, with a fuzzy orange costume, saucer-shaped eyes and a nonstop grin. Spencer had his national debut when the commission spent $50,000 to sponsor a stock-car race dubbed the NC SweetPotato 300.

In the first year of the event, 1996, cameras for the TNN cable network frequently caught the guy dressed as Spencer jumping and waving as drivers passed. The second year, relentless rains postponed broadcast of the race. The next year, a hurricane wiped out much of North Carolina’s sweet-potato crop, along with the will and wherewithal to sponsor future races.

These days, the commission has more modest ambitions for Spencer, using him for store openings and as a cartoon character in suggested lesson plans that, among other things, ask North Carolina schoolchildren how many cups of sweet potatoes are needed to meet the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E for five football players (answer: about 3.3 cups).

Last year, the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, a growers’ group, collected $75,000 from members and paid Weight Watchers International Inc. to promote sweet potatoes, which the Woodbury, N.Y., diet concern had chosen as its ”pick of the season” food for the last quarter of 2006.

”It was a very valuable partnership,” says Diana Levine, a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers, which distributed a million recipes to members and posted nutritional information on its Web site. But while many in the industry said sweet-potato sales spurted, others disputed that, and some cost-conscious growers never stopped complaining about having to pony up for the bill.

”All I hear them say is they better not ask me for any more money,” says George Wooten, a North Carolina grower who is serving a year-long term as the council president. He adds that he has received no response to his recent proposal that the council sponsor a hot-air balloon to promote sweet potatoes at festivals and fairs.

An amiable 53-year-old with curly dark hair, Mr. Wooten got into the business 30 years ago when he went to work for his stepfather at Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., a Chadbourn, N.C., concern that ships about 90 million pounds of sweet potatoes a year.

A religious man, he stamps some of his shipping boxes with the slogan: ”Sweet potatoes are God’s gift for a healthy life and Jesus Christ is God’s gift for eternal life.” More secular cartons feature drawings by the late Eldon Dedini, whose work frequently appeared in the New Yorker and Playboy. Mr. Wooten also pays Wearable Vegetables, a New Orleans clothing company, for the right to use an image of three sweet potatoes playing music under the headline, ”We Be Yammin.”’

Although such artwork is rarely seen outside the storage rooms of supermarkets, Mr. Wooten is convinced it will help make for a bit of buzz. ”A lot of people are just sitting there with complacency,” he says, ”I’m just trying to create a little magic.”

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