Sweet potatoes gain wider appeal

Tradition: The Hayman, a type of spud often served on the Eastern Shore for Thanksgiving, finds its way to other areas.

November 17, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Sun Staff

Candied yams, those big starchy slabs of potato slathered with butter and sweetened with marshmallows, are a Thanksgiving staple. But a little treasure of a spud called a Hayman -- an Eastern Shore tradition -- has made its way across the Chesapeake Bay, bringing a sweeter, lighter alternative for the holiday table.

The Hayman sweet potato is an heirloom variety that has been grown for more than a century on the Shore. Smaller than a traditional sweet potato, it has white flesh that turns pale yellow when cooked -- and a lush, sweet flavor that makes marshmallows unnecessary.

"Everyone here loves them. It's a mark of Thanksgiving," says John Hickman, a native of Virginia's Eastern Shore. "The Hayman was kept alive by people who liked the way it tasted."

Hickman heads Eastern Shore Select, a company started in 1995 with seed money from the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, as part of a push for sustainable economic development in Northampton and Accomack counties on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Eastern Shore Select is the largest purveyor of Haymans in the area, and this year expects to sell about 360,000 pounds of them to grocers along the mid-Atlantic coast.

There are also about 114 acres of Hayman potatoes grown in Maryland and sold at roadside stands and farmers' markets, says Chuck Less, a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Annapolis. Anne Arundel County accounts for nearly half of the Haymans grown in the state.

When Eastern Shore Select was formed, Hickman recalls, the founders searched for a local resource to develop and market. As part of their research, they conducted taste tests in Washington of pasta sauces made from local tomatoes, relishes made from local cucumbers -- and Haymans.

"On a lark, I said 'Let's take up some Haymans,' " Hickman recalls.

They put out a few raw samples first. "People were intrigued by them," Hickman says.

Then they put out some cooked Haymans for the tasters to try -- and they were an instant winner.

"We knew we had something when people were trying to take the tasting samples with them," Hickman says.

Eastern Shore Select has brought the potatoes across the bay and into urban markets from Boston to Washington (this year, the company is introducing a Hayman potato chip as well).

In the Baltimore area, Hayman potatoes are available at Fresh Fields markets, according to produce coordinator Craig Bishop. They also can be found at the Sunday farmers' market under the Jones Falls Expressway, where Anne Arundel County farmer Robert Knopp and Harford County farmer Walter Bedford sell them along with regular sweet potatoes.

Although Hickman's firm brought Haymans into commercial grocery stores only three years ago, they've been a sweet little secret passed across the bay by Shore residents to friends and family for years.

"I get bags of them, and give them to my customers," says Neal Foore, co-owner of Neal's the Hair Studio at Park and Read streets in Baltimore. He was introduced to them by his partner's father, Joseph Pitta, who lived in Salisbury for 22 years and would bring Haymans to Baltimore when he came to visit.

"Local people told me about them," Pitta says. "I introduced Neal to them. I serve them at the house for friends. We get them every year."

The history of the Hayman variety, including how it got its name, is somewhat hazy. Hickman, who researched the potato, says he found references to it reaching back more than a century.

"I can trace them back as far as 1880," Hickman says. "There's a reference in a letter from a school principal in southeast Virginia." The potatoes also are mentioned in a 1930s census of agriculture for the area, he says.

Local lore has it that the potato got its name from a ship captain who brought it to Virginia's shore, but no one is certain.

"It has been grown on the Eastern Shore for literally generations," says Rikki Sterrett, associate professor at Virginia Tech's Eastern Shore Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Painter, Va. "It's been here as long as anybody can remember. Nobody really knows the origins."

Like all sweet potatoes, Sterrett and Hickman say, Haymans need to ripen after they are picked, so their starches can turn to sugar -- a process similar to the way bananas ripen on the stem after picking.

Most farmers and retailers let Haymans ripen for a couple of weeks before selling them, but it's a good idea to ask -- if they're cooked unripened, they're bitter, Hickman says. Once bought, Haymans should be kept in a warm, dark place. "Under the bathroom sink is an ideal place," Sterrett says. They should never be refrigerated because cold will diminish their flavor.

Haymans are delicious when roasted in their skins -- just prick with a fork and bake in a hot oven until they're tender, then add butter at the table. They also can be prepared in more elaborate ways.

Gingered Hayman Potato and Carrot Soup

Serves 4-6

2 pounds Hayman potatoes

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2/3 pound carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

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