After generations of being smothered by a blanket of marshmallows on Thanksgiving and then forgotten for another 11 months, the irrepressible sweet potato is having its moment.
American farmers expect to harvest a record two billion pounds this year, almost half of that here in the nation’s most prolific sweet potato state. Sweet potatoes have achieved a status that just a few years ago would have seemed laughable.
They may even be hip.
Like skinny jeans, bamboo-frame bicycles or Disney stars, what is in and what is out can change in a flash. Just three years ago, The Wall Street Journal expressed the food world’s consensus view and declared on its front page that after the Thanksgiving dishes were cleared, the sweet potato was no more special than a turnip.
Yet the rough-skinned vegetable is arriving these days on plates both elevated and humble, from fancy state meals made with produce from the White House organic garden to a seasonal side dish served with cinnamon dipping sauce at White Castle. Europeans, too, have begun romancing the American-grown sweet potato, and the sweet potato fry is getting so popular that research has shown almost half the children in America under 12 have tried one.
To meet demand, American farmers are planting more, chain restaurants are rewriting menus and ConAgra this month opened a $155 million plant dedicated to processing frozen sweet potato products — the first of its kind in the world.
“It’s not something we believe is a fad,” said Andy Johnston, a vice president with ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston. The company’s market research shows that only 12 percent of sweet potato eaters consume them solely during the holidays. Almost 30 percent of sweet potato fans eat them several times a month.
Food and farming experts attribute the sweet potato’s escape from the limited culinary prison of the Thanksgiving table to nutritional and cultural shifts. Sweet potatoes have become the darling of the diabetic and weight-loss set, a lifeline for parents whose children demand fries for nearly every meal and a boon for Southern farmers who are looking to replace tobacco.
“We are just thrilled,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, 62, of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission. “We think it’s long overdue.”
There is no denying that sweet potato fries are at the center of the revolution. What began as innovation at the trendiest restaurants in San Francisco and New York in the 1980s has finally worked its way into the culinary mainstream.
Over the past two years, the number of restaurants offering sweet potatoes as a side dish has increased by 40 percent, most of that from sweet potato fries, according to a survey of the menus at 900 restaurants by Technomic Inc., a market research firm.
At Google, where the interests of a nation can be tracked by analyzing what people type into the search engine, searches for the term “sweet potato fries” are up about 40 percent this year over last, said Rebecca Ginsberg, who works for the company’s global communications and public affairs office.
The sweet potato follows the cranberry as the most recent food to migrate from the Thanksgiving table, said Harry Balzer of the NPD Group, a market research company that for 25 years has done an annual survey of American eating habits. The cranberry had the marketing of the Craisin, a brand of dried cranberry, to thank. Sweet potatoes have the fry.
“I don’t go too many places where I don’t get asked, ‘What do you think about sweet potato fries?’ ” Mr. Balzer said.
To be sure, French fries cut from white potatoes still dominate the market. Traditional French fries are the second-most ordered item at restaurants in the United States. (Bonus points for guessing that the hamburger is No. 1). But the potential for the sweet potato fry to muscle in on that territory is huge, he said.
“French fries are in true need for some new things to happen to them,” he said.
But the sweet potato’s recent appeal stretches beyond the deep-fat fryer. Both the South Beach Diet and Weight Watchers have promoted eating them, preferably roasted with healthy oil. Doctors and nutritional experts recommend sweet potatoes for people with diabetes or who want to eat low on the glycemic index, which measures the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar.
“Within the diabetic community, it’s become pretty common knowledge that sweet potatoes are good for you, so there’s a groundswell because so many people have diabetes now,” said the chef Michel Nischan, who owns the Dressing Room in Westport, Conn., and helps host “dLife TV” on CNBC, the first television show for people with diabetes.
“It’s a vegetable that has protein, which is fairly unusual, but it also has complex carbohydrates that don’t spike insulin,” said Clare Hasler, a nutrition and environmental toxicology expert at the University of California, Davis.
In North Carolina, where 47 percent of the nation’s sweet potatoes are grown, farmers are glad everyone else seems to be catching on to a classic Southern culinary tradition. It helps replace the money that used to be made from tobacco and cotton.
Stanley Hughes, a third-generation farmer, has shifted some of his acreage from tobacco to sweet potatoes. This year, he put 28,000 plants in the ground. Next year, he said he would increase that number to 40,000.
He and his wife, Linda Leach, sell three kinds of organic sweet potatoes at local farmers’ markets in Chapel Hill and Durham, including a market in the lobby of the North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill.
Ms. Leach is particularly impressed by new enthusiasm from young urban cooks interested in sustainable agriculture and local food. “The only thing I can say is that the younger generation has become more and more health conscious and are leaning toward sweet potatoes,” she said.
She and her husband plan to spend Thanksgiving with her 80-year-old mother in Lumberton, N.C. There, tradition comes in the form of sweet potato pudding. Boiled sweet potatoes are mashed with vanilla, spices, sugar and lemon, then mixed with eggs and milk and baked.