Behind the Scenes

Colorful Counties

Farmers’ wives turn sweet potatoes into heavenly treats.
By Carolyn Thornton

Driving along state Highway 8 through Vardaman, Miss., you’ll see sweet potatoes on either side of the road, and not much else.

Owners

Top: Daphna (left) and Traci Cook of Sweet Potato Sweets. Carolyn Thornton photo

Bottom: The bakery is in Vardaman, Mississippi’s sweet potato capital champ. Sweet Potato Sweets photo

Bakery

Mississippi is second to North Carolina in sweet potato production. However, in Mississippi, Vardaman is the undisputed champion. According to Mississippi’s Sweet Potato Council, 90 percent of the crop is grown within 40 miles of Vardaman.

Surrounded by all those sweet potatoes, and being married to sweet potato farmers, three housewives decided to start a little business in 1996 called Sweet Potato Sweets™. Today, it is owned by Daphna Cook and Karen Wright. Their husbands, Paul Cook and Randle Wright, are local farmers who provide the main ingredient nearly 30 sweets that include cakes, pies, cookies, bonbons, fudge, ice cream, tea, coffee, marmalade and butter. That doesn’t include Yum Yums.

“They were actually a mistake,” said Daphna’s daughter, Traci Cook, of the brittle cookie. “I accidentally left out an ingredient and was going to throw it away, but mother said, ‘Bake it anyway.’ It’s become one of our best sellers.”

Nibbling the tidbits of Sweet Potato Sweets resembles a wine tasting. “But you can still drive afterward,” Traci said with a laugh.

Many of the sweets that fill the store and a 292-page “Cooking with Sweet Potatoes” cookbook come from family and friends. “Mother came up with sweet potato pecan pie,” Traci said.

“My sister, Betty Wright, brought a sweet potato pie recipe from Columbus when she moved back,” Daphna said. “And Traci brought a butter recipe from New York and said, ‘Today you’re going to make sweet potato jelly.’ We call it marmalade because it isn’t clear like jelly.”

This “homegrown” bakery is easy to find. It’s located just beneath the Vardaman water tower with a picture of sweet potatoes and Sweet Potato Capital emblazoned on the tank.

Daphna entertains visitors with sweet potato facts. In spring when the new crop is planted, crates of sweet potatoes from the previous harvest are cooling in warehouses. They take about 100 days to grow until harvest in late August to early November. Sweet potatoes have to be kept at a higher temperature the first four days after harvest to give the sugars time to rise. After “curing,” the temperature drops around 60 degrees. They can be stored up to 13 months.

Harvest season ushers in the Sweet Potato Festival on the first Saturday in November when some 20,000 visitors celebrate this humble root vegetable. For this year’s 36th annual festival, $3 will buy a plate of 10 different sweet potato snacks. A sweet potato pie-eating contest is one of Saturday’s events. There’s also sweet potato art, writing, photography and creatures made with this vegetable. Heavy metal fans can admire the display of potato farming equipment and antique tractors, and a Sweet Potato Queen reigns for a day.

Those who didn’t get their fill from the multi-table sweet potato tasting booth stay for the famous barbecue chicken lunch served at the firehouse. Picnic tables are located in the park behind Sweet Potato Sweets. During the evening’s festival banquet, awards recognize producers who have contributed to the industry.

The Mama Grace and Mayor’s Cup awards single out the festival’s best recipes. The Mama Grace award honors a lady who helped her husband in every aspect of growing sweet potatoes. “Whenever someone died,” Daphna remembered, “Mama Grace was there with food. She passed away one Sunday at church.”

As one customer told Daphna, “This is just like Mayberry.” Daphna added, “But Mayberry had more stores.”

Still, Vardaman’s sweet potatoes have gone “uptown” to the capital city. Sweet potatoes are tossed from floats during Jackson’s annual Mal’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The rest of the year, Vardaman is the sweet spot on Mississippi’s map.

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

Nov/Dec 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Sweet Potato Sweets bakery is located at 117 E. Sweet Potato St. For more information, contact (800) 770-5035 or (662) 682-9647. Click on www.sweetpotatosweets.com.

To visit Vardaman, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Mississippi through the online Reader Service program at http://southern.ai-dsg.com


^ to top | previous page