The rough-skinned yam: a tale of roots

My hand scraped against Jimmy Hudson’s cracked skin as I introduced myself. Jimmy is a vender at Madison’s Northside Farmer’s Market. This morning, he stood behind long tables of crisp vegetables from his 13-acre farm in Monroe, Wisconsin. When I stopped to chat, he taught me the difference between a sweet potato and a yam. I also learned his leather palm wasn’t simply the result of a season’s weeding.

“I’ve been gardening since I was six years old,” he explained. And that was the least of it.

Jimmy grew up in Arkansas, picking cotton. You can’t pick cotton unless you were born picking cotton he told me. It’ll poke you and cut you. He started picking when he was 6. Cotton kept Jimmy out of school at times. His labor was useful for his family, both to bring in cash and to tend their kitchen garden.

“I was too hungry. My dad told me I had to stay out of school sometimes because I ate too much,” he said. “I would eat half a pan of corn bread and a skillet of food big enough for a whole family.” One time, he ate 100 peaches in one day.

“I ate 30 in the first hour,” he boasted. And then finished the other 70 over the remainder of the day.

At 16, Jimmy left Arkansas and the cotton fields for Florida and the citrus groves. As a teen with work-worn hands, travel brought the promise of adventure and citrus, higher wages.

“I picked grapefruits, oranges,” Jimmy remembered. “I made $18 a day down there. It was 35 cents per box of fruit you picked.”

He also worked for the City of Miami, collecting garbage.

“The truck never stopped. Every yard had a fence and you had to climb over it to get the garbage,” he explained. “That garbage had to come back over the fence with you, even if it was 100 pounds.” It was a race. Climb the fence, grab the trash. Scramble back over the fence, throw the trash in the truck. Run to the next fence.

“I guess they wanted to keep the streets clean, that’s maybe why they left the garbage on the other side of the fence,” Jimmy said. He calls it the most bizarre job he’s ever had.

“That truck just never stopped. One time we lost a guy and never found him til the next day,” he remembered.

Jimmy moved to Wisconsin in 1966. For more than 30 years he did landscape and construction work. Then, nine years ago he decided to farm full time.

“The one thing I won’t tell you is how I get my sweet potatoes so big,” he warned. His dad grew sweet potatoes the size of watermelons down south and Jimmy gets them nearly as big up north.

“And do you know the difference between a yam and a sweet potato?” he asked me. Admitting my ignorance, he explained that yams only grow in tropical climates, are much larger and extremely rough-skinned but often the sweeter of the two inside.                (Photo courtesy of

“Most people think they’ve had a yam, but they’ve only eaten sweet potatoes,” he said. “Even the grocery stores mix them up.” Sweet potatoes, he added, are in the same plant family as morning glories and yams aren’t.

Several sources corroborate Jimmy’s observations such as The Library of Congress, The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, and Texas A&M Extension.

According to Texas A&M, the confusion around nomenclature stems from the introduction of the orange sweet potato to U.S. markets. In order to distinguish the orange-flesh variety from the traditional white-flesh variety, producers of sweet potatoes called the orange ones yams.

Next market day, I’ll see if Jimmy knew that piece of the yam-sweet potato history. Or maybe I’ll just stop by for another story.


4 thoughts on “The rough-skinned yam: a tale of roots

  1. Pingback: Off the Vine #88 | Northside Farmers Market

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