Well-baked sweet potatoes are a marvel of contrasting texture and temperature when they’re just ten minutes out of the oven and pooling with butter. Good sweet potatoes, with a velour inside and caramelized outside, don’t require prep, slicing, or some repellant Thanksgiving-themed dipping sauce made of cinnamon sugar icing, marshmallow, or cranberries. And yet, starting in September, the soggy, burnt sweet potato fry and some accompanying edible goo are unbridled upon autumnal menus and worse — my favorite recipe blogs. Sweet potato fries, which are just as often baked as they are fried if we’re getting technical, taste disgusting.
Why do we insist on mistreating the sweet potato, America’s greatest natural resource besides uranium, in this particular way? What I learned is a horror story in itself: sweet potato fries are not some late-era self-sustaining garden-to-communal-table-with-backless chairs invention. They date back at least a century in the States, maybe longer. Chilling.
The sweet potato crop has been cultivated on this continent since at least the 1700s and, along with their red-headed step-cousin the yam, have had enormous agricultural impact, particularly in the South. By the early 1900s, George Washington Carver discovered that alternating a harvest of sweet potatoes and peanuts with cotton enriched depleted soil and increased cotton yield.
He subsequently went on a sweet-potato evangelism tour, distributing pamphlets with cultivation tips. He also included recipes in his sweet potato handouts because, as he stated in a 1910 bulletin for farmers called “Possibilities of the Sweet Potato in Macon County, Alabama,” “many, many dishes of illy cooked potatoes [had been] placed before [him].” According to Mark Hersey, a historian at the Mississippi State University, Carver’s travels proved to him that the common notion that “anybody could cook sweet potatoes” was “a great mistake.”
Among the 25 preparations in this bulletin (and its subsequent updates), Carver included a sweet potato fry recipe. What the hell….
No. 4, Fried:
Cut in slices lengthwise and fry in deep grease, same as white potatoes. Care must be taken to not allow them to become hard and dry.
So George Washington Carver, the sweet potato warlock, signed off on sweet potato fries as early as 1910? Could it be? Not entirely.
In “Possibilities of the Sweet Potato,” Carver quoted and endorsed a USDA notice:
The delicate flavor of a sweet potato is lost if not cooked properly. Steaming develops and preserves the flavor better than boiling and baking better than steaming. A sweet potato quickly cooked is not well cooked.
So, essentially, the velvety starch inside a whole baked sweet potato is the ultimate goal of spud preparation.
“In an offhand way, Carver [would] agree with your assessment of sweet potato fries when he endorses an opinion that baking is probably the best way to prepare them,” Hersey told me.
That Carver and I are on the same page is validating. Why fry at all when there are so many other, superior ways to prep an SP? In Carver’s “Possibilities” pamphlet alone, he offers instructions on how to make cinnamon-ginger sweet potato pies, stuffed sweet potato croquettes with ham, and a dish simply called “delicious potatoes,” in which the cook rolls a steamed sweet potato in melted butter and then bakes it until browned.
It’s possible the prominence of the sweet potato fry persists because of the notion that if you’re going to eat a french fry, sweet potato ones are better for you than white potatoes ones. This is sometimes correct. Sweet potato fries are often not fries at all — they’re baked, which naturally makes them healthier than fries that are actually, well, fried. Even still, the white potato has been unfairly demonized in comparison to the sweet potato. While the latter is a good source of vitamins A and C, its health benefits are negligible over regular potatoes. If you’re frying anything, it’s not going to be healthy.
In order to bolster my argument, and because Carver is dead and thus unavailable for an interview, I contacted several professional eaters to ask them what they thought about sweet potato fries. Salt Fat Acid Heat author Samin Nosrat said that while she would “never really turn down a fried tuber myself, it's a lot easier to make a bad sweet potato fry than it is to make a bad french fry, because of the sugars and starches.”
Of course. But she admitted something, too:
“I have, on occasion, ordered sweet potato fries, and I do think their most superior shape is the waffle, because it allows for maximum crispiness and steam escape.” She continued: “But I would pretty much almost always prefer a french fry.”
Tammie Teclemariam, New York Magazine’s diner-at-large and author of the weekly newsletter “The Year I Ate New York,” will occasionally order sweet potato fries as her profession requires her to experience the entire breadth of the root-vegetable experience.
“Not with a beef burger, but definitely with a turkey burger,” Teclemariam said about her SP fry consumption habits. “I just think sweet potato is a better pairing with the bland poultry burger, but too intense for beef.”
Echoing Nosrat, Teclemariam recommended Alexia’s Waffle Cut Sweet Potato Fries. I won't be buying them, but I appreciate them trying to help.
Mark Bittman, the author and chef whose baked sweet potato fries are among the most popular on the New York Times Cooking app, sort of agrees with me. “You’re not gonna get me to say sweet potato fries are better,” he said. But when I went so far as to accuse him of being a “sweet potato fanatic,” he fought back. He told me that maybe “a tenth of one percent” of his recipes revolve around them. That’s on me.
Michael Twitty, a culinary historian whose focus area is the African diaspora and the American South, has actually had a good sweet potato fry; unfortunately, it was not in America.
“Long story short, in most markets in West Africa you will find several women frying sweet potato wedges or frites in cast iron swimming for a few minutes in hellishly hot palm oil,” Twitty told me. “They are white and yellow with a few a deep red-orange and sprinkled with hot pepper and native sea salt and they are delicious.”
Why fry at all when there are so many other, superior ways to prep an SP?
Ali Slagle, a recipe developer and the author of I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To), was passionate about her distaste for sweet potato fries.
“They are never crispy. Always kind of like an In-N-Out fry – more roasted potato than fried,” Slagle said. “And they do not play well with ketchup or garlic or really even mustard, AKA any preferred fry accompaniments. So they do not excel in texture or flavor. And whoever spun them as healthier is a trickster.”
(Slagle brings up an excellent point vis-a-vis sauces. In the presence of a sweet potato fry, any condiment has to work overtime to mask the treacle. I’ve seen hundreds of variations on mayonnaise dips, and dozens of marshmallow dips, suggestions for variations on ketchups, ranches, and barbecue sauces. But at the end of day and the beginning of the meal, are we not just using sauces as an elaborate masking ritual? A used popsicle stick would taste good if I dipped it in maple mustard dipping sauce or honey butter. Or maybe not. But a sweet potato fry would taste just as bad.)
So next time you’re thinking about ordering sweet potato fries, or worse, making them at home, I’d like to direct you to this recipe instead for sweet potatoes with tahini butter or these sweet potatoes with pickled onions and goat cheese?
If you’re not going to learn anything from George Washington Carver about land stewardship, self-sufficiency, and thrift, remember this: If it’s not good enough for Samin Nosrat, it’s not good enough for you.