Cora Lee Brown, Compound Strip, 1981
|Archaeological evidence linked yams back to Africa over 10,000 years ago. Native to West Africa, igname, known as the a giant or white yam, remains to be one of the continent's main staples. In West African tribal practices, the yam took on mythical proportions as it was celebrated during seasonal harvest festivals. In America, often confused with sweet potatoes yams have their own identity in other countries. In Guinea, the term yam is often a synonym for the verb "to eat." while also used as the verb nyam among the Gullah speaking people off South Carolina. In the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, African yams continue to play a central role in African American cooking.|
In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison expressed the feeling for "back home" cuisine. To Bledsoe, yams signified a cultural identifier that brought him back to his experiences as a child in the South. Ellison also depicted how old settlers who lived in an urban environment like New York or Chicago disdained "down home" cooking, and associated it with a "filthy habit" not fit for the North. He wrote:
Then far down the corner I saw an old man warming his hands against the sides of an old-looking wagon, from which a stove pipe reeled off a thin spiral of smoke that drifted the odor of baking yams slowly to me, bringing a stab of swift nostalgia. I stopped as though struck by a shot, deeply inhaling, remembering, my mind surging back, back. At home we'd baked them in the hot coals of the fireplace, had carried them cold to school for lunch; munched them secretly, squeezing the sweet pulp from the soft peel as we hid them from the teacher behind the largest book, the World's Geography. Yes, and we'd loved them candied, or baked in cobbler, deep-fat friend in s pocket of dough, or roasted with pork and glazed with the well browned fat; had chewed them raw-yams and years ago. More yams than years ago, though the time seemed endlessly expanded, stretched thin as the spiraling smoke beyond all recall.
Steamed African Yams
1 African yam, about one pound.
Bring the water in a steamer pan to a boil. Meanwhile, using a vegetable peeler, peel off the dark fibrous skin from the yam. Cut the yam lengthwise into wedges or other uniform chunks. Place the yam on the steamer rack, cover the steamer, and cook until tender when pierced with a bamboo skewer, 15-20 minutes. Serve hot.
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