Ellen’s monologue on sweet potatoes and yams

Ellen explaining difference between sweet potatoes and yams[#yamgate] For those people fascinated by the confusion some Americans have about sweet potatoes and yams, you should probably watch this clip from The Ellen Show.

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Ellen said this was a sweet potato.

During the monologue she showed two photographs: a white-skinned sweet potato (which she called a sweet potato) and an orange-skinned sweet potato (which she said was a yam).  That’s basically her joke: for all of you who thought the orange-fleshed tuber was a sweet potato, you have been misled … it’s a yam! Her implication was that the second photograph (orange tuber) was some sort of plant completely unrelated to a sweet potato.

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Ellen said this was a yam.

Of course, the monologue is really funny even if you know she’s wrong, and I’m sure she’s was just feigning ignorance (she’s brilliant at that).  But when I first heard the monologue, I thought to myself: wow, I wonder whether she’s from Louisiana?? Only somebody from that state would pitch the information in the way she did, I thought. So I Googled her and found her Wikipedia entry … she is.

Louisiana is the state that is actually responsible for the sweet potato / yam confusion. In the 1930s, a sweet potato researcher, Dr Julian Miller, decided that Louisiana could make a lot more money if it started marketing sweet potatoes under the name “yams.” Although nobody really likes to bring it up, “yam” is the word enslaved Africans used for the sweet potatoes, which they were introduced to in the Americas (sweet potatoes resembled the yams they ate in Africa). So Louisiana used that historical fact as a marketing scheme for selling a variety of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. It really was brilliant, and the guy is a state hero.

Being the swell guy that I am, I’ve offered to send Ellen a yam. It would be hilarious to have a cook on the show deep-fry batches of yams and sweet potatoes and hand them out to the audience. Both are sweet, starchy, and deep-fry nicely. Ellen said at the end of the monologue that when she gets information on sweet potatoes and yams, she’s going to share it, so I think she’s set herself up nicely for this. So far, though, no word from Ellen about whether she would like a yam.

A photo of a yam is below, on right, just in case you’ve never seen one (likely). If you actually want to know more about yams (unlikely), please see my “Yams versus sweet potatoes” page.

Photograph of sweet potatoes and yam

About Colin Purrington

PhD in evolutionary biology • twitterinstagram
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