Yams: The Food of Champions
It used to be that there were two seasons in the year – crop season (also known as crop time) and hard time. Crop season stretched from December through June and hard time stretched from July through November.
Crop season was defined by the growing season for yams. Nowadays farmers plant yams year-round, especially with the recent dispersal of the round-leaf variety of the yellow yam. Back in the day though, farmers didn’t have access to this hardy variety of the species. The planting stocks that were available to them were the varieties that were passed down to them by the ancestors. The varieties which I remember are affu (often referred to by its more sophisticated appellation, yellow yam), tau yam, Saint Vincent yam, renta (Bajan) yam, mozella yam, negro yam, yampy, hard yam, soft yam, white yam, sweet yam, and Lucea yam.
The St. Vincent yam exhibits striking variations, ranging from plain white, through shades of pink, to deep (dark night) purple. I admired this variety for its beauty but the taste never quite grew on me. And from an economic point of view the short shelf life of this particular variety pretty much condemns it to a the place of non-starter among yams.
There is only one variety of the tau yam. This yam is considered to be perfection itself. Boiled or broiled (roasted) tau yam is a delectable treat. It has a fairly long shelf life and as such is a front runner in the marketplace.
Renta (Bajan) yam could be nice and soft but often turned out to be woody and inedible. When you found a good piece of renta though, you were practically in heaven. Let that bit of renta be in a Friday evening pot of beef-soup and you would be fairly in danger of eating your fingers. It is no wonder that mothers often warned their children about such a danger. The shelf life of the renta yam is quite impressive.
Mozella yam, the flesh of which is greenish yellow, is regarded as a specialty yam. This variety has the tendency to produce a gigantic tuber. It is not unheard of for one tuber of mozella to weigh 60 pounds or more. That is a whole lot of yam and most farmers do not delight in the task of reaping such a monster. Every farmer I know however, harbors the secret desire to be the producer of such a yam. This variety too, has a fairly decent shelf life.
Negro yam, presumably named in celebration of our blackness is, curiously, white fleshed. Fittingly though, negro yam is the most aesthetically appealing of all the yams. It’s agreeable to the taste and has a very long shelf life. It holds an esteemed position in the market place both at home and abroad.
Yam was (and still is) wealth and a man would likely measure his wealth by the expanse of his yam field and the bounty of his weekly harvest. It is hardly an accident, therefore, that farmers came to refer to the yam mounds, known to previous generations as yam hills, as yam banks. As far as yams and banks go, affu yam is the gold standard. It is a front runner in both shelf life and taste.
“A two-pound piece of yellow yam with a blob of “Gold Seal” salt margarine (remember that?) or a two-inch square of salt fish (a sure-hit formula for a stroke and a heart attack combined) was like a magic elixir.” The affu had a few identifiable variations even back in the day. There was the much favored ‘black vine’ and the less favored ‘white withes’. My pops indicated that distinction very early in my education. The black vine produced a superior yam, that is to say, a yam with a nice powdery consistency. The white withes produced a yam with a glutinous consistency, which would later provide a priceless metaphor (glammity) for bards who trade in ribaldry. Having learned from pops, I became decidedly biased towards the black vine variety whenever I consider yams for the dinner table. When the need arises for the metaphor, however, I unabashedly extol the virtues of the ‘white withes’ affu. Oh, blessed glammity!
Years ago when I used to return quite regularly to Jamaica, the first order of business was to get to the roast yam peddlers at Melrose Hill, located just outside Porus, Manchester, approaching Williamsfield. Later this heavenly treat was made available at the wayside food bazaar of Walkerswood, St Ann. This was much to my delight, for it expanded my choice of routes to take to get to my bush, in St. Ann from the airports, while at the same time satisfying my rustic cravings.
A two-pound piece of yellow yam with a blob of “Gold Seal” salt margarine (remember that?) or a two-inch square of salt fish (a sure-hit formula for a stroke and a heart attack combined) was like a magic elixir which brought me back to my roots and kept me centered for months, years even, when I came back to foreign.
The quality of the Porus roast affu is legendary. The sheer dedication which is rendered in the expenditure of time, and the display of patience associated with the scraping of the charred surface of the yam, borders on religious reverence. I grew up roasting yams and I have never been able to get the rind free of the carbon. No matter how hard I tried, there was always a little black left on the roast yam that I prepared. (It was nice just the same!) Porus yams though, are simply unmatched. The vendors scrape it down to that golden crust that sets the saliva gushing just from looking at it. It is a delightful treat every time.
The roast yam peddlers of Porus were among the first of innovators. They transformed a staple of old-time bush cooking into commercially appealing restaurant fare. Thus they were to bring the notion of “value-added production” to the bush economy.
The ‘yam grung’ (ground/field) was both a carnival and a university. It was a place for joyous contests and joyful learning. It was a delight to participate in the digging of yam hills. The physics and the artistry of it were intriguing.
The technique which my brothers and I used to dig yam hills was developed and passed on to us by our father, Papa Joe. His prescription for the ideal yam bank was that it be made three-fork-width square, to work from the ‘foot’ to the ‘head’, and then to sink out (deepen) the ‘mouth’, the mouth of the yam hill being that area that would become the front of the mound when it was molded up.
It was a festive atmosphere that prevailed when we gathered in the field to dig yam hills. Each man (boy too!) was designated row-spaces along which he would dig his yam hills. Sometimes the digger was assigned a job ‘pardner’ to cut away the bushes and clear the rows. More often than not though, the digger would have to perform both tasks. The digging would commence before sunrise and continue until 4 o’clock in the afternoon (farmers kept a strict regimen). Muscles would ripple, like twisting coils of anacondas, in arms and shoulders as young athletic bodies cut through the soil with Diamond Forks (that implement being an old British inheritance). The contest would be on in earnest as the young men poured rivers of sweat (and sometimes blood) into those yam hills, in the battle to dig even one more bank than a brother, cousin, or friend in the neighboring row. They did this while at the same time ribbing each about this and that and talking a lot trash about girls.
It was in the yam field that my father passed on a lot of the knowledge that he bestowed on us. On one occasion, whilst declaiming on the virtues of the various yams, he informed us that the sweetest yam was pum-pum yam. Every last one of us stood to attention with our mouths agape. (Just like some of you are sitting there now with youth mouths wide open in an apoplectic stupor.) But pops never broke his stride; he kept on laying down the knowledge on us. He held up the pum-pum yam, from which he was about to make our lunch.
There in his hand was a circular mass which resembled a pumpkin more than it did a yam. This is a rare occurrence in the world of yam farming and is the product of some kind of genetic mishap which produces a haffu yam (no other yam but the haffu, to my knowledge, produces a pum-pum yam) that lacks the germinal ‘eye’. To sum it up then, this is a completely blind and infertile yam.
So anyway, Papa Joe held it up to us and extolled it virtues. He told us about the sweetness of the yam. And then he closed his eyes and waxed eloquent as he informed us of that magical feeling, that silky-smooth sensation of the yam on the tongue. You could hear a pin drop when he was done speaking. Not a man moved nor spoke! When, however, lunch was served we became instantly converted to the belief that the pum-pum yam was, indeed, a superior eats.
I was going to go on about the other yams but it would be painfully anti-climactic to continue in that vein. What, pray tell, can be said about yams after one speaks of the sweetest of all yams?
In retrospect, I am convinced that Papa Joe was delving into other matters even as he spoke to us about yams.
Aduku Addae may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org