In January my husband told me we have several yams waiting to be dug, and we should start using them before the potato crops come in, here in Barton Creek. I asked why he didn’t tell me sooner. Soon afterwards a large, brown, muddy, knobby specimen appeared on our back porch; it must have weighed 10 pounds. But my husband said it was only half of the smallest one and these grew up as volunteers and uncared for! Yam, not to be confused with the smaller and unrelated sweet potato and also not to be confused with the wild yam, a herbal source of estrogen, is surely one of Belize’s under-appreciated foods. A vine that would thrive climbing up a tree in your orchard, it grows from seeds that look, strangely enough, like miniature yams, borne on the vine like flying potatoes. How manifold the variety of our Creator’s creations! If yams are not “kind” enough to grow voluntarily at your place, plant the seeds in June or so in a hole either below a tree they can climb or in the garden with some structured support, which can be as simple as a tepee of poles. You would expect the second option to yield more fruit, but so far we have actually had better success just planting them in unplowed ground.
You can start eating them about nine months later (the following dry season) but you can leave them in the ground for quite a while after that; however, over time they become woody and eventually rot. One elderly bachelor had a large one which he could not eat all at once, being only one person. He harvested the yam piece by piece, letting the vine grow. In the end he calculated that it must have weighed 70 pounds! If you harvest your yam all at once it also keeps quite a while in the house as you use pieces of it. The cut end dries out so you just have to re-trim it. I have a piece like that in my pantry which has been there for several weeks and shows no sign of spoilage.
A full grown yam is easy to find as it sticks partly out of the ground, with a finger-thick vine growing out of it. To harvest your yam, cut off the vine with a machete, unless you want to leave it growing as the above-mentioned bachelor did, and dig around with a pick until you can see how to pry it from the ground. Don’t forget to search the ground for yam seeds, resembling tiny yams, ranging in size from a jumbo marble to a smallish potato. Better yet, if you get them before they drop, you can take them from the vine. Stick a seed in the ground where you just dug out your yam, if you’d like to repeat the experience the following year, and gather the rest, each one a camouflaged pear, to plant elsewhere or share with friends.
Yams are a bit of a challenge to handle, due to their slimy quality when raw and their tendency to cause itch. (These qualities are reversed by cooking.) I used to always stab them with a fork and peel with a knife so I could do it without touching them, though lately I discovered I could touch them a bit without adverse side effects. It may depend on how sensitive you are. If you didn’t scrub it before peeling, which might be a good idea, then you must wash the peeled yam chunks. Now your yam is ready to be cooked.
Yam can be used the same way as potatoes: shredded and fried; diced and added to soup, stews and curries; or boiled and mashed, which is our most common way of preparing them. Boiling and mashing them require the least handling of the slimy chunks, and they do mash beautifully. I usually add butter, cream and milk, salt and freshly ground pepper. Even better, my family likes the patties I make from the leftover mashed yam. Add a few eggs, some diced onions, and a half-cup or so of flour (I use cassava flour) to 3 or 4 cups of mashed yam. Drop by heaping tablespoonfuls into a greased skillet and fry till golden brown, turning once. This same mixture, with a little more milk added, and perhaps some leftover bits of cooked meat, makes a good casserole when baked.
The potato crop has, indeed, flooded Barton Creek now, though not as abundantly as some years, due to the irregular weather; but there are plenty that can be used up before they spoil, potatoes not keeping as well as more tropical roots like yam. Potatoes are certainly delicious and versatile, as we are enjoying them, but I’m not neglecting my yams; mashed yams make an excellent base for bread-making, a nutritious addition to any loaf. So let’s give thanks to our Creator for yam, the gentle giant of tropical roots.