Call it a sweet potato or a yam. Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without this favorite side dish.
But sweet potatoes' appeal no longer depends on a marshmallow crust.
"People are realizing the benefits of sweet potatoes," said Aaron Silva, a fifth-generation California sweet potato farmer. "They're high in beta carotene and other vitamins, with no fat; they're all-around healthy."
We're eating a lot more sweet potatoes year-round. After a half-century lull, national sweet potato consumption has almost doubled in the past five years, thanks to this root vegetable's reputation as an antioxidant-rich "super food."
"We've done some very successful promotional campaigns with Weight Watchers that was a huge plus and the American Heart Association," said Silva, president of the United States Sweet Potato Council. "Sweet potatoes are a great part of a healthy diet."
Industry experts also point to another trend: sweet potato fries. The popularity of that side dish in restaurants has boosted sweet potato sales nationwide.
"There's been a big push (for sweet potatoes) for processing fries," Silva said. "In California, we're growing at least 25 percent, maybe one-third more than we did five years ago."
Annual per-capita consumption went from about 3.5 pounds in 1998 to almost 6.5 pounds this year. That's still a fraction of what past generations ate; average consumption in 1920 was 29 pounds.
During the Depression, sweet potatoes helped people through hard times, particularly in Southern states where the vegetable is most popular, according to food historians. But when American diners became more affluent, they dropped sweet potatoes from their diets except traditional holiday feasts.
Now, sweet potatoes are being valued again for their high nutrition and low price.
With an estimated 18,500 acres devoted to sweet potatoes, California ranks No. 2 behind North Carolina in sweet potato production. About 80 percent of California's crop is grown in Merced County.
Our No. 1 variety: Diane, a "red yam" with rich red, almost purple skin.
"It's actually going to be a better-than-expected crop," said Silva, whose family owns Doreva Produce in Livingston, near Turlock. "Things look really good with everything on target."
Most of the California crop already has been harvested and is headed to market just in time for holiday cooking.
"Mother Nature helped us out this year. The climate was mild and we had good soil moisture," Silva said. "That really helped our sweet potatoes."
One more thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.