A baked sweet potato is a great addition to almost any southern meal, especially loaded with butter, brown sugar, and honey. But even better than a sweet potato baked is one candied. As a child, I could not believe that both the potatoes from supper and the candied yams at Thanksgiving Dinner could have come from the same garden, much less the same plant. Yams have always been superior in my opinion, but not just because they are soaked in a sweet homemade syrup before being fried on the stovetop until they are just soft enough to be easily forked without falling apart. It is because they represent family, community, and the fruit (or vegetables) of one’s labor.
Candied yams have been a staple at holiday meals and family get-togethers for as long as anyone in my family can remember. It is a flavor that I will forever associate with my Granny Banks’ green and white checkered kitchen and its dark wood cabinets. But they are not just memorable to me because of the taste or the smell. Instead it is the fact that it always required both my Granny and Papa to make them. This process began in their backyard garden, where Papa and Laddie tediously tended the vegetables, growing the sweet potatoes that would be stocked up and saved for all the meals to come. They would be carefully watched and watered until just before the first fall frost. At that time, Papa would come find whoever was around, first it was my Granna when she was a child, then my mother, and eventually me, to come dig with him. We would dig around in “dirty clothes” each trying to find the best one. The time was special, and harvesting the potatoes ourselves made us even prouder of the prepared dish when it sat on the table for Thanksgiving Day. The day of the meal, the potatoes were pulled out of the old peach boxes, and then came what I still consider the toughest part. If you’ve never cut a fresh sweet potato before, I can testify that it is not an easy task. Especially as my Granny grew older, it was not something my papa wanted her to do alone. So he would cut them, and she would cook them. As I got older, I became the middleman, taking the slices and soaking them in the sweet syrup that undeniably separates a yam from a plain old sweet potato. Seeing the sincerity and loving nature in their partnership has forever elevated the smell and taste in my mind because it means so much more than a baked sweet potato. As my family sits down to celebrate a holiday, we sit down around the dish that has been tediously prepared and exhibits the love that has created such a big family, and this has made it even more popular than the turkey. It may seem silly to elevate candied yams in this way, but I can promise that biting into one in my Granny’s kitchen will prove all that I have written. It has for many that have married in or passed through our family, and ultimately, it is one food we will continue to prepare in remembrance of my Papa, and as a reminder of the community that has been created in that green kitchen.
Dr. Gibbs Knotts is currently the Interim Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College as well as a faculty member of the Southern Studies department. Since he. came to the College, he has been able to use his reformed view of the South to further the department and all the students that pass through it. His childhood as a “fraud” southerner has given him a unique perspective and respect for the South and everything he teaches. After obtaining degrees from both UNC and Emory, he has evolved from an “ashamed southerner” to someone that has a healthy respect for the evolution and complexities of the region. Through his time at the College of Charleston, he has met other individuals that share similar thoughts about the South as well as music and authors, which has grown his interest in the region and its issues.
Dr. Knotts has written several books throughout his career at both WCU and here at the College. Through his work, he has studied the topics related to Southern Studies, such as the southern identity, which led him to co-author a book with another professor he met in his time at Western Carolina University. Along with Dr. Christopher Cooper, Dr, Knotts wrote The Resilience of the Southern Identity: Why the South Still Matters in the Minds of Its People. He has also written on topics more related to politics, which he also teaches at the College. This resulted in a book he published in 2020 on the South Carolina Presidential Primary and it’s impact on the nation, as it is the first primary in the South. He says that working as a professor has allowed him to be a “lifelong student” in both the Southern Studies department and beyond.
Currently, Dr. Knotts is working on a project regarding the southern accent and the assumptions that can be made by hearing one. This particular project involves the perception of southern politicians in comparison to those without an accent, and so far the results have shown that people prefer politicians without an accent. He plans to add additional variables to the study before publishing it as an article sometime in the future.