Mississippians are truly fortunate. Those reading this within the blessed border should already know what I mean. Those reading from foreign lands like Cyprus, Egypt, or Kentucky may be suspicious. We do get a bad rap sometimes because of various and sundry rankings, some of which may or may not be related to our interest in frying our edibles. But the truth is that we grow some of the healthiest food in the country. Consider the sweet potato.
According to a poster I recently saw on the wall of the school cafeteria in Vardaman, The Sweet Potato Capital of the world, sweet potatoes are virtually fat-free, cholesterol-free, and loaded with anti-oxidants like vitamins A, C and E. I even saw a couple of references that made the claim of it being one of, if not THE most nutritious vegetable around. Mississippi definitely has reason to be proud as one of the top five sweet potato-producing states. And according to the poster, 90% of the ones grown in Mississippi are within a 40 mile radius of Vardaman. Sweet potato capital, indeed.
As I began to think about this subject, I was sitting in BIN 612 having lunch and added a sweet potato to my order. Nutrition aside, I like their versatility. Baked, I can take the cinnamon/brown sugar route or simple salt and pepper (both must have butter.) Mashed, they go in my biscuits, cornbread and grits. I like them diced in my soup or sliced and candied like Mama used to make. It didn’t cross my mind until my lunch arrived that the next day I would be headed to Vardaman for an afternoon of sweet potato eating. I ate it anyway, but I’m sure all the other folks at the BIN wondered why I was grinning at my food.
This was my second year as a judge for the annual Sweet Potato Recipe Contest, held on the last day of the week-long festival honoring the orange root. You would think I would have learned something from last year, when I waddled away from Vardaman, full as the proverbial tick. But no, my attempts at moderation were defeated. I succumbed to the versatility of the sweet potato and the creativity of the worthy cooks of Vardaman, Mississippi. Willingly.
After the judges were paired up, we were asked if we had a preference of categories. I knew we couldn’t go wrong in any of the genres, but given the proclivity for pies and cakes, I wanted to check out the savory recipes, so my partner and I headed off to the miscellaneous table. Some of the entries were still sweet, such as the Sweet Potato-Pineapple casserole, a Sweet Potato Honey Bun Cake that may have been the sweetest bite in my mouth that day, and a Sweet Potato Flan. A Sweet Potato Harvest Dip, served with vanilla wafers, was contained in a pig, cleverly carved from a fat sweet potato; had there been a design category, this surely would have won. Something called Tater Wraps was also on the sweet side – a chunk of sweet potato wrapped with strips of dough and smothered in glaze – one of my favorites of the day.
We did eventually get to the savory dishes I had requested. There was a Sweet Potato Shrimp Dip, a Sweet Potato Salad (think normal potato salad, but with pineapple instead of onion and lots more color), and Sweet Potato Cornbread Poppers. The Poppers were little cookie-sized pieces of cornbread that were dotted with lots of other veggies, too, including greens. Vardaman Trash was basically a hot refried bean and cheese dip with chunks of sweet potato mixed throughout. Definitely a first for me, but I liked the sweetness the potatoes brought to the bite. Leading the winners in this category was something called Southwestern Duo, another hot and spicy dip with chicken, black beans, corn and – of course – sweet potato. (That was kind of a requirement.) Multiple bites of this certainly contributed to the difficulty I had in sitting up straight an hour or so later. Rounding out the winners was another first that I hope is not the last: Sweet Potato Deviled Eggs. Just like regular deviled eggs (if there is such a thing as regular), but with pureed sweet potato mixed in with the yolks.
The one savory dish in the men’s category was a dip called Sweet Buffalo Chicken. The buffalo sauce may have taken over the sweet potato in flavor and color, but hiding all that nutrition underneath the melted cheese might be a good way to get the kiddos to eat more of it! The men of Vardaman also provided us with a Ponana Pudding Pie (you can probably figure out what was in that one) and perhaps the most unique recipe I saw that day: Sweet Potato Tomato Soup Cake. Granted, there was not a lot of tomato soup in the recipe, but still – it’s not an everyday ingredient in the sweet shop.
The Youth category may have given us the widest range of dishes. On the sugary side we had the winning Sweet Potato Bars and a Loaded Baked Sweet Potato (with roasted pecans and caramel sauce). A Sweet Potato Omelet was a breakfast option and a Quesadilla represented international food.
The Mayor’s Cup winner was Wilma Johnson for her Simply Delicious Sweet Potato Cake. (It was.) Lindsey Wade took second for her Sweet Potato Caramel Butter Bars – I couldn’t quit eating these. Third place was Barbara Williams for a Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Pie. It had coconut in it, but it looked like the kind of pie I would otherwise love.
Once I had tried everything I wanted (and snagged a cream cheese-stuffed muffin for the road) I moved the seat back as far as I could safely go, loosened my belt buckle, and regretted not wearing pants with an elastic waist. Happily stuffed, and a bag of Vardaman’s finest in the back seat, I set out for home.