Once, the sweet potato was the only potato any that self-respecting Brit or European would eat. When a basket of potatoes — both sweet and starchy — was dropped at the feet of Queen Isabella by Christopher Columbus her reaction, in a word, was “yuck”. And so potatoes weren’t terribly popular in Spain nor anywhere else in Europe for quite some time. Up until the 1700’s or so they were mostly used as animal feed and as a food of last resort for farmers, fishermen and sailors.
Sir Walter Raleigh had somewhat better luck introducing potatoes to Britain in the late 1500’s. The sugar-starved subjects of the empire particularly enjoyed the sweet potato’s taste and texture, and took it up with gusto. So much so that the thing we now commonly know as the “potato” was virtually ignored for the next 150 years. It wasn’t until the middle 1700’s that English speakers even needed to add the word “sweet” to distinguish their preferred tuber from its starchier cousin. Virtually all recipes printed before 1750 actually mean “sweet potato” when they say “potato”.
But while we have records that allow us to pinpoint to the day when potatoes were first introduced to Europe, the story of the potato’s introduction to the rest of the world is much more confused.
There’s no question that the sweet potato is native to Central and/or South America. It’s been cultivated in Peru for a minimum of 10,000 years. It began to spread to Polynesia about 3,000 years ago, but no one knows exactly how. Some scientists think potato seeds just floated there. Others think Peruvians sailed to Polynesia, still others believe the Polynesians came and got them.
Whatever the case, sweet potatoes were on their way around the Southern Hemisphere well before Europeans set off to explore the world in the 1400’s. It was once accepted wisdom that European slave traders were the ones who brought the sweet potato to Africa. Recent evidence indicates that this was not the case. The sweet potato’s arrival on the African continent predates Europeans by at least several hundred years. As to how they got there, no one can say.
What’s clear is that the sweet potato was a mobile crop well before mobility became a trendy pass time for the human race. That, I think, is a testament to the utility of the sweet potato, which is not only one of the longest-keeping and most portable foods on the planet, it’s one of the most nutritionally dense. That made it a very valuable commodity once upon a time. So valuable that people took it with them wherever they went.