I Yam What I Yam

Cropped Yams by Kevin Kim, Clarksdale MS
Yammin’ it up at Wong’s Foodland in Clarksdale, MS. Photo by Kevin Kim.

 by Emily Wallace

Each spring, my hometown holds Johnston County’s annual Ham and Yam Festival, and with it, the “What’s That Yam Thing?” contest. The competition calls for potatoes dressed as a person, thing, or animal.

Certainly, a whiskery yam makes for a good mouse or cow, and a curved yam painted yellow, an obvious banana. But it seems that at their heart, sweet potatoes are best when dressed as people. After all, it was “Yammy Boo Boo” who took first place in the contest this year, and “Tator Swift” a prize the year prior. (My own entry in 1994 was Dan Yam-sen, a semi-obscure allusion to Olympic speed-skater Dan Jansen, which was beat out by a yam that favored Duke basketball’s Coach K.)

But yam people exist well beyond the bounds of Johnston County, each with their own unique style, and their own brand or festival to represent.

Tex Sweet Potato

The yam of Golden, Texas sports boots and a hat.

Tabor City yam

In Tabor City, North Carolina, he wears overalls.

Snow Hill Sweet Potato 2

And the sweet potato of Snow Hill, North Carolina’s annual festival dons jeans and a flower in her hair, only to be overshadowed by a hat on the head of the Sun Beauty brand yam.

Sun Beauty Sweet Potato

But my favorite yam of all—in fact, one of my favorite illustrations of all—wears a yellow handkerchief, a scrap of blue wool, and a worn-out mitten. She is the subject of The Sweet Patootie Doll, a picture book from 1957 written by Mary Calhoun and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. Beyond her no nonsense look, Sweet Patootie also has no nonsense wit. As she quips throughout the book, “she knew what she was for. And it wasn’t for eating.”

Sweet Patootie

Emily Wallace blogs for us about food, art, and design. You can check out more of her work here.