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Ham and yams and the quirks of Johnston County



Perched above racks of hand-sewn sweaters and silkscreened T-shirts at a clothing store in Wilmington, I recently came across the story of my life. It was The Sweet Patootie Doll, written by Mary Calhoun, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin and deconstructed in the form of a journal.

Published in 1957 by William Morrow & Co., the children's book is about a small girl named Lucy who could be almost any child from my home in Johnston County. Lucy saw much more in a sweet potato than a casserole or pie, which are pervasive this time of year.

From the shape of a dusty old vegetable, she imagined a doll, with a bump for a head, "two specks, just right for eyes, and a brown, curvy scratch, just right for a mouth." My neighbors and I used to have the same visions. In Johnston County, a place that harvested 181.6 million pounds of sweet potatoes in 2011, we are groomed from an early age to appreciate the nicks and nobs on potatoes, seeking faces and shapes in them the way most children do with clouds. The twisted tail of a yam is coveted for making a cow or hog. Prickly whiskers are cherished just the same.

We officially started crafting potatoes in 1985, when Smithfield held the first Ham and Yam Festival. The event was initiated as a challenge from ham producers in Johnston County to those in Smithfield, Va. Along with tons of orange potatoes, Johnston County also boasts an abundance of hogs: 175,000 in 2011. Such swine would show up at the initial event in the form of barbecue, sausage and country ham biscuits, plus the bright red hot dogs for which the town is known. (Andrea Weigl of The News & Observer once called Smithfield "ground zero in North Carolina for the fire-engine red dogs.")

Sensing that pork would thus hold the spotlight through such dishes, several sweet potato farmers rallied to bring attention to the yam (which is actually a different, white-fleshed vegetable entirely, but a common name often interchanged with sweet potatoes). A Miss Yam contest was planned, along with a potato bake-off.

Most notably, "What's That Yam Thing?" was born. The competition called for potatoes dressed as a person, thing or animal. According to The Smithfield Herald, I entered the second year under the pre-school division and took third place for my "Thing." The actual entry isn't named, but reportedly I won $2, which must have been plenty to set me on my way for years to come. Potatoes were mostly free.

Each spring, a cardboard box full of the dingy brown roots was delivered to our school in advance of the competition. My classmates and I rummaged through the options, tossing back potatoes that lacked the perfect crook in their necks or swell in their abdomens. For further consideration, some kids were blessed with a personal stock of yams on their own home farm. Others of us had the benefit of a nearby Piggly Wiggly.

When the weather began to warm, indicating the onset of Ham and Yam season, a favorite pastime of mine included biking to the grocery, where I sorted through a hopper of sweet potatoes. Locating the perfect yam was crucial. Yes, you could hide blemished skin underneath a doll's dress. And certainly, acrylic paint went a long way. But the merit of the actual potato couldn't be denied. The shape gave direction, hinting at what the yam could be (cutting a potato to suit one's purpose was strongly frowned upon).

Over the years, I made your average pig and mouse. I also recall a clown and a sneaker. But the entry of which I was most proud was a speed skater. There's no real logic for that object. The same long periods of frost-free soil that make North Carolina an ideal climate for growing sweet potatoes obviously also renders speed skating an impossible endeavor.

But in 1994, glued to the Winter Olympics on television, I became obsessed with the sport. And when Dan Jansen skated to gold in his final race, then carried his infant daughter during a victory lap, I found my yam person for the year. I took my Huffy to the grocery that spring and dug my way through a display bin in hopes to unearth a tiny potato. Dan Yam-sen would hold it in his arms (i.e., a toothpick—the secret weapon of potato crafting—would fasten it to his bulky yam chest). The two potatoes would then stand triumphantly on the cardboard ice rink I planned to construct.

Yam or ham puns frequently garner big wins. I was pleased to note that two young family friends placed last year with "Hammah Montana" and "Tator Swift." But semi-obscure athletes don't take gold (or blue ribbons, as are actually awarded at the annual event). And so it was that Dan Yam-sen was defeated by Coach K. His slender potato body lounged in a Barbie Ferrari as he quipped something to the tune of "Yam dunk."

The following year, I was too old to compete, so that was the last time I dressed a potato with anything other than butter, brown sugar or marshmallows. Still, I think of yam things often, sorting through heaps of potatoes at the farmers market, saying, "Wouldn't this be just right for..." The answer is rarely a casserole.

As the Sweet Patootie Doll notes throughout Calhoun's book, "she knew what she was for. And it wasn't for eating." Instead, dressed in a yellow handkerchief, a scrap of blue wool and a worn-out mitten, she was "for making a little girl glad."

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