Sweet potatoes are the North Carolina state vegetable, but they could also be the official veggie of Stephanie Tyson’s family. “I remember my mom telling me her grandmother used to hide baked sweet potatoes in her apron so the kids wouldn’t get to them and she could secretly eat them herself,” says Tyson, the chef and co-owner of Sweet Potatoes restaurant in her hometown of Winston-Salem. The ones her family feasted on largely came from a farmer who would drive around their neighborhood with a pickup truck full of the bright orange favorites, along with watermelons and other produce. And the family would prepare them in all forms—candied, roasted, in pies, and in pones (crustless pies they made with raisins, pecans, and pineapple). Not surprisingly, when Tyson began creating the menu for her beloved restaurant, which marked its twentieth anniversary this year, she realized sweet potatoes dominated. “I knew I had to address that,” she says, “so I figured I’d just name the restaurant Sweet Potatoes!” The root vegetable is part of the morning glory family (not the potato family) and is thought to have first been cultivated in Central and South America. A prolific and easy grower in Southern heat, it quickly became a staple with European settlers.
At farm stands and markets in the fall, pass on any with dark spots, cracks, or indications of sprouting, and store them in a paper bag in your pantry (never in the fridge). Along with more traditional preparations like pie or baked sweet potatoes, which Tyson stuffs with broccoli, cheddar, ham, and pineapple, she likes to spice things up a bit by making a curried sweet potato soup (see recipe). She began making the soup—a little sweet, a little savory, and luxuriously creamy—for a local fundraiser benefiting the homeless community, and it soon became her go-to soup at the restaurant and at home. But no matter how you prepare them, it’s easy to understand why Tyson’s great-grandmother hoarded sweet potatoes for herself. “They’re so versatile and delicious and Southern,” Tyson says, “and just part of who I am.”