Arts & Culture

Why America Is Growing The Most Sweet Potatoes Since WWII

Jan 19, 2017

Sweet potatoes are undergoing a modern renaissance in this country.

While they have always made special appearances on many American tables around the holidays, year-round demand for the root vegetables has grown. In 2015, farmers produced more sweet potatoes than in any year since World War II.

War Effort

"A lot of things were hard to get during World War II, and potatoes were easier to raise than some of the other vegetables," my grandmother Joyce Heise tells me.

As seaweed continues to gain popularity for its nutritional benefits and culinary versatility, more people are skipping the dried stuff in the grocery store and going straight to the source: the ocean itself.

At low tide on West Coast beaches, foragers hop between rocks looking for bladderwrack, sea lettuce and Irish moss to take home with them. Sea vegetable foraging has become so common, in fact, that you can take a class to learn what to harvest and what to avoid.

The nightshade family has some of the most economically important and useful crops on Earth. That includes, of course, deadly nightshade or belladonna, which produces the medicine atropine, as well as potatoes, tomatoes, chili and bell peppers, tobacco and eggplant.

West Coast crab fishermen just ended an 11-day strike over a price dispute. But a more ominous and long-term threat to their livelihood may be on the horizon. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found a link between warming ocean conditions and a dangerous neurotoxin that builds up in sea life: domoic acid.

Erica Abad glides down the ancient canals of Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, on her gondola-like boat. Her cousin, Efren Lopez, steers their boat — called a chalupa — by pushing against the canal floor with a long wooden pole, while Abad flips a sizzling quesadilla on a steel griddle fitted into the boat. When a group of people on a nearby barge signal to them to order some quesadillas, Lopez navigates the boat toward them. And Abad places a few more quesadillas on the griddle for their customers.

On New Year's Day, Portland restaurant Ava Gene's will be serving brunch to the hungry and hung-over masses. And amidst the frittatas, French toast, and grits, there will be Chef Josh McFadden's own favorite: pasta carbonara.

Nadege Green / WLRN

Two Haitian women are haggling over the cost of carrots and green squash along a sidewalk in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood.

They're standing at Bernadette Dubreide's  fruit and vegetable stand on Northeast Second Avenue.  Regulars call her Madam Dubreide.

It's 7 p.m. and the kitchen is preparing the first orders of the evening. Chef Mario Castrellón puts the finishing touches on a dumpling stuffed with a sea bass escabeche.

"Sometimes, customers get confused. They think, 'This guy [Castrellón] is nuts! I am eating a Chinese dumpling and he says it's Panamanian,' " laughs the chef and restaurateur. "But Panama's cuisine is fusion by obligation."

Film critic David Edelstein estimates that he saw 400 films this year — more than enough to fill "a couple of 10-best lists," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. His favorite? The fantasy musical, La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

"Everything — the movement of the camera, the colors of the set and the costumes, the rhythms of the actors — harmonizes with everything else," Edelstein says. "It's a beautiful combination of an homage to the past and something entirely new."

As Ben Franklin noted, some of you have "the Power of changing, by slight means, the smell of another discharge ... our water. A few stems of asparagus eaten, shall give our urine a disagreeable odour." Apparently this is so common a power that the 18th century French botanist Louis Lémery wrote that asparagus causes "a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine, as everybody knows."

Everybody except me, anyway.

In a photo for GQ earlier this year, Melania Trump sat in a white dress at a white table posed with a fork and spoon, twirling a thick platinum rope necklace in a bowl like a piece of bucatini.

Sarah Lohman has made everything from colonial-era cocktails to cakes with black pepper to stewed moose face. She is a historical gastronomist, which means she re-creates historical recipes to connect with the past.

Neil Case

When you sit in the passenger seat of DJ Billy E’s sky-blue van and he turns a few nobs on the console, tens of thousands of watts of bass are pushed out from a wall of subwoofers behind your head and crash down, not just on your ears, but on your entire body. It makes every little nose hair dance around and tickle. It’s hard to breathe there’s so much pressure. It is absolutely thrilling.

Updated Dec. 1, 9:05 a.m.: The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve the 21st Century Cures Act, a sprawling bill to fund medical research and revamp how drugs and medical devices are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Courtesy Knight Foundation

Miami Arts Week started with good news for the whole region, with the announcements of the winners of the 2016 Knights Arts Challenge. 

The contest, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will give $2.78 million to 44 local  artists and projects aimed at exploring the authentic voices of South Florida and bringing art to neighborhoods from Key West to Palm Beach. All winners have committed to find funds to match Knight's commitment (it's one of the conditions of the grant). 

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