Linda Geist

COLUMBIA, Mo. –Though sweet potato is one of the most widely served side dishes at Thanksgiving dinner today, it probably wasn’t on the menu at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.

According to an account by Plymouth settler Edward Winslow, waterfowl, venison and seafood dominated the meal. He also mentions corn. “Everything else at the three-day feast is speculative,” Trinklein said.

In his journals, Christopher Columbus records encountering sweet potato during his fourth voyage to Yucatan and Honduras, and he is credited with introducing it to Spain around 1500.

Colonists took sweet potato back to the New World, and it was grown in Virginia as early as 1648. From there it was taken both north and south. “The southern migration of the plant was much more successful than the northern because of the plant’s need for warm weather,” Trinklein said.

It’s uncertain exactly when sweet potatoes became a traditional part of the Thanksgiving dinner menu. Much credit is given to writer, editor and activist Sarah Josepha Hale, perhaps known best for composing the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” around 1830. Hale was a vigorous advocate for making Thanksgiving a national holiday, and she later published a recipe for sweet potato pie.

“The recipe, along with Hale’s reputation as the ‘godmother of Thanksgiving,’ no doubt, helped to set the stage for the tradition of serving sweet potato at Thanksgiving,” said Trinklein.

“Sweet potato is a nutritious vegetable that probably deserves more attention than it gets in the diet of the average American,” he added.

In addition to being rich in essential nutrients, it is relatively low in calories. (However, caramelizing sweet potato with brown sugar and topping it with marshmallows adds considerably to the caloric content.)

Sweet potatoes are started in the garden as vegetative “slips” (rooted offshoots) that should be planted 9-18 inches apart in rows spaced 36-48 inches. Adequate soil moisture and fertility are essential, Trinklein said.

Sweet potato should not be planted until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed, he said. It prefers well-drained, slightly acidic loam soil.

Learn more about sweet potato production in the MU Extension publication “Growing Sweet Potatoes in Missouri,” available for free download at

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