People

North Carolina’s Sweet Potato Queen

  • By Josh Shaffer
  • Photography by Lissa Gotwals

One teacher and a group of fourth graders in Wilson believed we needed a state vegetable. So they wrote letters until legislators listened.

celia-batchelor

Seventeen years ago, North Carolina’s General Assembly christened the sweet potato our state vegetable. The officials didn’t do it because they knew that richness hides inside rough packages. They didn’t do it because they admired the sweet potato’s versatility: savory under melted butter, tasty when topped with marshmallows or when masquerading as a French fry.

They did it, grudgingly, at the urging of Celia Batchelor’s fourth graders from Elvie Street School in Wilson, a resourceful collection of 10-year-olds who kept up a two-year campaign, earning themselves a nickname: The Tater Tots.

By granting the sweet potato official state vegetable status, lawmakers did more than elevate an overlooked, subterranean vegetable. They showed several dozen kids from some of Wilson’s poorer neighborhoods that it doesn’t always take lobbyists, lawyers, and money to make things happen. You don’t always need a three-piece suit to get a legislator’s attention.

Even if you’re a fourth grader from Wilson, sometimes all it takes is the same persistence and heart that lies inside a sweet potato — the same magic that turns a root vegetable into a soufflé, a lumpy spud into a pie.

“This is going to sound like Don Quixote,” says Batchelor, now retired from teaching, “but we thought maybe we could empower those kids. I remember them telling me, ‘I learned that even kids can make a difference.’ Isn’t that great? I get chills thinking about it.”

Sitting in the public library in downtown Wilson, 17 years removed from the great sweet potato victory, Batchelor takes out a yellow social-studies textbook and turns to page 304. On that page a section explains the three branches of government, a dry but essential piece of grammar-school learning. It shows a picture of a little girl with a big idea, a lightbulb glowing over her head.

“This is probably what kicked off the whole thing,” Batchelor says.

•••

Raised in Wilson, swept off to Georgia after marriage, then relocated to her hometown, Batchelor arrived at Elvie Street in the early 1990s to discover her new school a bit rough. She recalls concertina wire on the fencing.

Many of the kids came from poor households. That fourth-grade class didn’t have much of a sense that the government served the public — all of the public — and that it can be called upon to listen to somebody whose voice doesn’t easily travel all the way to the halls of downtown Raleigh.

In 1993, Representative Gene Arnold, a Republican from Rocky Mount, visited Batchelor’s class and left the students inspired. The state vegetable idea had been rolling around the school and the town of Wilson for some time, Batchelor says. North Carolina produces more sweet potatoes than any other state, growing nearly half the country’s supply. And Wilson sits right in the center of sweet potato farmland.

But the vegetable’s local connection stretches back further than today’s farmers. American Indians were growing sweet potatoes when Columbus landed. Dinosaurs may even have munched on them.

“Everybody in the room had something they liked about it,” Batchelor says. “What can you say bad about a sweet potato? Maybe you would say it’s ugly. I’ll take that. But we had all this ammunition.”

With Arnold’s blessing, the kids launched their state vegetable campaign. But they quickly learned that it takes more than one letter to set the wheels of government spinning. For a long time, spuds went nowhere in Raleigh’s chambers.

When Arnold returned to Elvie Street a year later, a new class of fourth graders, full of the same civic pride, not-so-gently reminded him, “Mr. Arnold, you told Ms. Batchelor’s class last year you were going to introduce a bill about the sweet potatoes.”

•••

Here the story turns slightly sour. The kids’ enthusiasm didn’t move state lawmakers to tears. When Arnold made good on his promise, his colleagues rewarded him with a basket of taters and a tinfoil crown. Sweet Potato King, they called him, more than a little mockingly.

Worse scorn awaited the children in newspapers across the state. The Wilson Daily Times took a curmudgeonly stance in an editorial condemning the kids’ effort as a waste of the government’s time.

“Never mind that having 10-year-olds dictate statewide legislation makes no sense,” The Times wrote in 1995. “Bills declaring state vegetables, drinks, fabrics, rocks, rodents, fungi or soil types should be banned from the Legislative Building on principal as a matter of respect for the taxpayers who are paying $55,000 a day to keep the legislature in session. If even one day of debate went into this legislation — and that may be a low estimate — the taxpayer has been robbed.”

Once the bill reached the Senate, every vegetable with a constituency reared its head demanding fair consideration.

“Many of us think it ought to be the rutabaga,” Sen. Tony Rand, a Democrat from Fayetteville, said at the time. “And that will have to be resolved.”

•••

Back home, the kids kept writing. Young Shaun Griffin penned the most widely quoted and effective words. He promised to hound the state’s political establishment “from now until doomsday. We’re never going to quit, never. We will nag you to death.”

Hundreds of letters followed. The Tater Tots got busy.

Batchelor says the knockout punch came when she fetched a dusty directory of schools across the state and had the children write to fourth graders from Murphy to Manteo.

Elvie Street didn’t find an army of supporters. The state’s 10-year-olds didn’t rally around them in solidarity. But The Tater Tots did catch the attention of an elementary school in Raleigh, and its students joined the sweet potato mission.

Finally in July 1995, the Senate joined the House and inked the sweet potato bill 43 to 3.

“Yes! Yes!” Representative Arnold told The News & Observer in Raleigh. “I’m so happy for the kids.”

The only letdown, Batchelor says, was that the bill passed in the summer when the kids weren’t in school to celebrate. But she saw Shaun Griffin in media interviews, telling the doubters how he learned that even kids could make a difference.

Years later, Batchelor met one of her former students working at a K&W Cafeteria. The student insisted that Batchelor tell all of her coworkers how they helped pass the sweet potato bill.

Another time, Batchelor was idling at a Wilson intersection when a bearded truck driver pulled alongside and repeatedly honked his horn. She ignored him until she noticed that he was a sweet potato boy all grown-up. “Ms. Batchelor! Ms. Batchelor!” he shouted. “It’s me, Donald!”

At the end of her career, after hundreds of days trying to bring civics to life, of telling a room full of fourth graders about Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson and why they’re important, Batchelor recalls with special fondness the two years she spent convincing a grown-up world to listen to the ideas coming from growing brains.

Sweet Potato Chicken Pot Pies

  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • ½ cup flour
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1½ cups sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into ½-inch pieces
  • 2 cups chicken, cooked and diced
  • ½ cup scallions, chopped
  • 1 cup green peas, cooked
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Stir in flour, and cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in stock until you have a smooth sauce.

Bring to a boil, and add sweet potatoes, chicken, scallions, peas, thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook on low, stirring frequently until sweet potatoes are tender, 6 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and let cool 5 to 10 minutes. Divide between 4 medium-size, ovenproof bowls. Preheat oven to 400°.

Cut 4 circles from puff pastry, each large enough to cover the top of bowl. Brush rims of bowls with water, and place a pastry round on top of each, pressing edges tightly to seal. Brush tops of pastry with egg wash.

Place prepared bowls on a baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes or until puffed and golden-brown. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

— N.C. SweetPotato Commission

Old-Fashioned Sliced Sweet Potato Pie

  • Pastry for 9-inch double-crust pie
  • 3 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced into ¼-inch rounds
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ⅓ cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 tablespoon butter, cut

Preheat oven to 425°. Line a 9-inch pie plate with 1 layer of pastry; set aside.

Combine 1 cup water and salt in a large saucepan. Add sweet potatoes, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat, and simmer until sweet potatoes are barely tender when pierced, about 5 minutes. Drain slices, and rinse with cold water until cool to touch. Drain slices well; transfer them to a large mixing bowl.

To sweet potatoes, add sugars, lemon juice, flour and pumpkin pie spice. Toss gently with a spatula until slices are evenly coated. Spoon sweet potatoes into pastry-lined pie plate; dot top of potatoes with butter. Place top pastry over filling, and crimp top and bottom pastries together to make decorative edge. Cut 3 to 4 slits in the top to allow steam to escape. Bake until crust is browned and sweet potatoes are tender when pierced, about 50 minutes. Cool pie on wire rack at least 1 hour. Serve warm or cool.

— N.C. SweetPotato Commission

North Carolina Sweet Potato Festival
November 1-3
342 U.S. Highway 13 South
Snow Hill, N.C. 28580
(252) 747-3446
ncsweetpotatofestival.com
Thursday-Friday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

Josh Shaffer is an award-winning writer for The News & Observer in Raleigh. His most recent story for Our State was “The Peanut Man” (October 2012).

Check out these restaurants around the state for a sweet potato sampler.

This entry was posted in Eastern N.C., Food, November 2012, People, Recipes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to North Carolina’s Sweet Potato Queen

  1. Josh,

    I enjoyed your article about the Sweet Potato queen very much. Your work here and in the N&O is always well done. However, I hope readers will seek out the original and longest running Festival dedicated to that oh so Sweet Potato in my hometown of Tabor City, NC. Unfortunately, the bulk of this year’s festival was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. Tabor City (TC) was the Yam capital of the World and could use some publicity after that cancellation. Sweet potatoes are often referred to as yams in the TC area.

    I have only visited TC for years and I know it much more for tobacco than potatoes. However, one excellent source of more specifics would be my high school friend Nelson Lee. Nelson is Proprietor of the tasty and famous The Todd House via http://www.todd-house.com.

    Nelson is also a past Mayor of the sweetest spot in Columbus County. I was in TC for Thanksgiving and read a very fact laden book on its history given to me by my Mom. Let me know if I can provide any additional information to you or anyone else. I love TC and it is a special place where everyone is a Yam Queen or King. Above all thank you for giving that sweet tater some additional publicity and keep those great stories coming. Also see the following from the Tabor City web site: http://www.taborcitync.org

    It wasn’t until the mid 1930s that Tabor City became known as the “Yam Capitol of the World”. An annual festival was initiated in 1948 to pay tribute to the sweet potato. Today, this festival is known as the “North Carolina Yam Festival”. The festival is always held on the fourth Saturday in the month of October.

    Roger Coleman Gore

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