The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday August 11th

Operation sweet potato — success!

It’s lunch time at Lenoir — and you are hungry. Maybe you’ve set your eyes on a caprece chicken sandwich, the well-dressed specialty of a new local vendor in Lenoir; or perhaps you packed a colorful salad today with organic greens, even including lettuce’s weird liberal uncle — arugula?

Whatever the instance, there is no denying that well-educated students are being told to eat a certain way.

The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook:

Ginger Ale-Spiked Sweet Potatoes

1 tablespoon butter, at room temperature
2 pounds slender sweet potatoes, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4 inch-thick slices
Salt and ground black pepper
1 (12-ounce) bottle Blenheim Ginger Ale (either regular or hot)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Butter the bottom of a shallow 2-quart casserole or gratin dish. Arrange the sweet potato slices on rows with their edges overlapping. Season with a bit of salt and a grind or three of pepper. Pour the ginger ale over the top. Bake until the potatoes are tender and glazed with syrupy sauce, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

But why? Free range? Grass fed? What happened to free pizza and Ramen noodles, the quintessential diet and ancient staple of college life?

We are Blair Mikels and Alex Walters, collectively your source for deciphering the suddenly jargon-filled world of food issues. We are not food experts; we are eaters — just like you. Our column will take a fresh perspective on food issues and culture, adding a dash of practicality to a world defined by its diet.

Our first stop is to divide, conquer and dine on North Carolina’s very own “superfood” — the sweet potato.

We decided to start simple. The master plan was a recipe pulled from the “Southern Foodways Alliance Cookbook” calling for only three ingredients: sweet potatoes, butter and spicy ginger ale. As students who like to know where their food comes from, we were also both determined to gobble up some specifically local sweet potatoes.

We decided to attempt to source our orange tubers from farm to plate — literally. Naturally, neither of us had a garden chock-full of sweet potatoes ready to bake, so we decided to take (um, steal?) a couple from UNC’s own Campus Community Garden.

In 1995, the General Assembly declared the sweet potato the North Carolina state vegetable, and with good cause — they’re available year-round in the Triangle and enjoy a storied history. Today, nearly half of the country’s sweet potatoes are being raised right here in our state’s rural backyard.

Scrambling to trespass through the stiff, bamboo gate of the seasonally locked student-run garden, we hardly felt like the right people for this job. But this was our task: to hunt down the ultimate foodie prize — the organic, local, community raised, seasonal sweet potato.

However, suddenly cold and lost inside the ice-covered garden, we found ourselves unable to simply identify a sweet potato. We realized that we knew a whole lot less about our food than we had hoped.

Good thing we had a plan B.

The Carrboro Farmers’ Market is one of few year-round farmers’ markets in the state. Luckily, one prolific farmer had a bunch of awkwardly shaped sweet potatoes perfect for our recipe.

An oven, an hour and a few hungry bites later, we finally achieved foodie nirvana through a couple of sliced and buttered gingery sweet potatoes. Our once-dubious taste-testers agreed; we did our southern roots and recipe proud. Our culinary success confirmed that eating produce grown locally and seasonally isn’t just a phrase printed on a T-shirt or tote bag — it’s actually a way to recover the lost art of knowing where one’s food comes from to begin with. And if the two of us can achieve that, just about anyone can.

Blair Mikels and Alex Walters are gastronomic columnists for the Daily Tar Heel. Mikels is a senior southern studies major from Raleigh. Walters is a junior biology major from Hayesville. Contact them at and

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