The Roots of Thanksgiving 27 Nov 2013


Although this Thanksgiving gazillions of people will chow down on “yams” – candied or otherwise – they just think that’s what they’re eating. In reality, they’re munching sweet potatoes, not yams at all. Real yams can be five or more feet long, weight 150 pounds, are native to Africa, Asia and Latin America and aren’t even in the same plant family as sweet potatoes. The succulent, deep-orange-fleshed sweet potato originated in the tropical Americas and was domesticated about 5,000 years ago. They are in a plant family that also produces morning glories and some houseplants. These moist, sweet tubers were called “Nyamis” by West African slaves arriving in this country, a Senegalese word meaning “to eat” and referring to an African tuber of another type, not sweet potatoes.

The Deadly Harvest – Potatoes

Potatoes, as we all know, are eaten as hash-browns, country fries, French fries, baked, scalloped and especially at Thanksgiving, mashed and covered with lots of gravy. They were once believed to be deadly poisonous as were tomatoes. Both are in the Nightshade family that contains the Deadly Nightshade, a truly toxic plant, wild and domestic tobacco, lethal to eat and life-threatening to smoke or chew and chili peppers. The latter are not toxic, only causing a desire to die when some of the more flaming hot ones are eaten.

Baked potatoes are one of my favorites, drenched in butter, smothered with sour cream and sprinkled with chives and shredded cheddar cheese. I eat the skins along with the white inside of the potato, but a Finnish friend we invited over for supper once told us that in his country only pigs eat potato skins!

Turnips – Irish Jack-O-Lanterns

Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Mediterranean regions are likely places of origin for this somewhat strong-flavored vegetable. They were cultivated in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The Irish once used hollowed out turnips as Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween. Ancient beliefs say Satan gave an Irishman named Jack a hollowed out turnip with a glowing ember inside to light his way at night when Jack was denied entrance into Hell for tricking the Devil.


These yellow-fleshed vegetables are one of my favorites. Diced, boiled and mashed with butter, milk, a little sugar and salt, they are absolutely delicious. Rutabagas probably originated in southern Europe. They do best when grown in colder climates, so Sweden became a large producer and they are still called “Swedes” in Europe.

In the market you’ll usually find softball-sized rutabagas without their tops piled in bins and coated with wax to help preserve them and reduce moisture loss. When you cut them, you’ll find them to be hard as a brick. But once peeled, diced and boiled, they are easily mashed and their mild turnip-like flavor will be a marvelous addition to your holiday meal.

Parsnips – Carrot Cousins

Until sugar beets came along, parsnips were used to make a sweetener. The juice was squeezed out and boiled down to form a thick brown syrup used like honey. Parsnips were brought to this country by early colonists and probably originated in the eastern Mediterranean region. Both Greeks and Romans ate them but they also called carrots by the same name.

Medicinal uses of parsnips in antiquity included the treatment of toothache, stomach disorders and male sexual disorders. In contrast, some people in 16th century Europe thought eating parsnips caused insanity.

Beets – Bloody Looking, But Healthy

Beets have been around for at least 2000 years and like so many of our Thanksgiving vegetables, came from the Mediterranean and West Asia. Their deep red juice has been used as a dye and for many medicinal problems including stomach problems, constipation, circulatory disorders (including hardening of the arteries), kidney and gall bladder disease and even dandruff. With so many supposed curative properties, they sound like something an old time snake oil con man might hawk from back of a covered wagon!

Anyway, let me wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. And while you’re devouring your turkey and all these vegetable goodies, don’t forget the ultimate source of your bounty and be sure to give Him your heartfelt thanks.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.