April 10, 2014

Sweet Potato vs. Yam: A Starchy Mash Up

Yams, Sweet Potatoes, and Potatoes

Is it a Yam or a Sweet Potato? Phew, that is one contentious question! You should see my family get into it. In the East we call them Sweet Potatoes, in the West they're known as Yams. 

Yams, Sweet Potatoes, and Potatoes have a tangled history.  All three are quite distinct. I would bet that if you've eaten "Yams" in North America, they were actually Sweet Potatoes. And since we're on this topic we must include Potatoes in the conversation. Though not often confused with the other two roots, Potatoes, have come along for this wild etymological ride.  It was the Sweet Potato that lent its name to the Potato – not the other way around.

Sweet Potatoes
Now, how did the names get so messed up? Let’s start with the Batatas. Sound familiar? It’s 1492. Christopher Columbus bumps into the Carribean. While harassing the indigenous population, his crew encounters a Starchy Root vegetable. The local Taino call it the Batatas and it’s now what we know as the Sweet Potato. The Sweet Potato, along with Columbus, has been part of American culture from day one. Sweet Potatoes are a staple dish at Thanksgiving and are very popular in the Southern States. It’s North Carolina’s State Vegetable.

Potatoes, Patatas, Batatas…The Spanish word for Potato is Patata, which by no leap of the imagination clearly came from Batatas. While the Spanish were crusading through South America in the 1500’s, they came across another Starchy Root called the Papa. What we now call the Potato. The Potato, though initially mistrusted in Europe, went on to become a staple crop. High yielding, cold hardy, and easy to store – it was an ideal crop for Europe peasants, though criticized as a dirty food by upper class Britons. It led to huge population growth, though over-reliance combined with an outbreak of Late Blight lead to the devastating Irish Potato Famine (and why many of our ancestors are here in North America).

African Yam
The Yam has it’s own long history and was only tangled up with Sweet Potatoes through in the last couple centuries. The Yam is a tropical grass that originates from West Africa (important food in Nigeria). It’s English name likely came from various West African words including Nyami and Iyan. It’s also widely eaten in East Asia and the Caribbean. There are many varieties, both wild and cultivated. Rough skinned tubers can range from potato size to several feet long. Its flesh can be a variety of colours (just like Sweet Potatoes and Potatoes). The Yam was brought to the Caribbean during the slave trade and is still grown there. Similarity between white Sweet Potato and the white Yam seems to have led to the names crossing over in the Southern US.

Rebranding the Sweet Potato
In the mid 1900’s, Sweet Potato farmers in the United States started growing a softer, orange variety of sweet potato. The one that we eat today. The industry wanted to differentiate their new crop from the firm, white Sweet Potato that Americans were accustomed to. Up to that point, Sweet Potatoes and Potatoes were both generally white fleshed. The word Sweet Potato, after all doesn't sound terribly exciting or or healthy ("Sweet + Potato"?? Come on). I would love to have heard the rationale for choosing Yam as the new name. From what I have read, the word Yam (but not the food itself) had been floating around the Southern US since the time of Slavery as an alternative to the white fleshed Sweet Potato.

This recent re-branding of the Sweet Potato to “Yam” has lead to a lot of this confusion. In the USA producers are required to label Yams as Sweet Potatoes. It’s fair to differentiate the orange "Yam" from the white Sweet Potato. "Yams" become soft when cooked (masheable) whereas the older white varieties stayed firm. To add to the confusion, in Eastern Canada they don’t often use the term Yam, they are just orange Sweet Potatoes.

Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas)  have tapered ends.
Originated in Central America. It’s North Carolina’s State Vegetable.
Orange varieties known as Yams in North America.
Related to the Morning Glory Flower.

Yams (Genus Discorea various species) are chunky or tapered.
Originated in Tropical West Africa. Important crop in West African, East Asia, and Caribbean. Still a specialty item in North America.
Related to grasses and lilies.
I've never seen one in my life! 

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are round or egg shaped.
Orginated in South American Andes. Thousands of varieties.
Nightshade Family with Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplants, Tomatillos, Husk Cherries. 

Graham Waugh, Human Nature, Calgary, New Brunswick, Food Writer, Farm, Salad Spinners

February 26, 2014

Meet the Brassica Family

What’s in a name? 

Meet the Brassica-Saurus family
Savoy (aka Blistered) Cabbage: From Middle English Caboche meaning "head".

Arugala: Demonstrating a perfect Crucifer shaped Flower (also great on salads)
Radish: from the Latin for Root radix
The Brassicaceae family includes many popular vegetables (and some unpopular ones). From Broccoli to Cabbage, Arugala to Bok Choy. Roasted roots, steamed greens, fresh in salads, and frequently fermented, this family is perhaps one of the oldest and more adapted vegetables we consume.

These veggies have a variety of common names including Brassicas, Crucifers, and Cole Crops. Let’s break those names down. To start – Brassica is a relatively new term that was Latin-icized from the Celtic word for cabbage -  bresic”.

Well then, who the heck is Cole? You may have noticed a trend Cole Slaw, Collards, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kohlrabi, and even Kale. These all share the same word root which is derived from the Latin word caulis meaning stem and was later used in German (Kohl). Cole Crops aren’t all Brassicas- only about a dozen of the more European ones are referred to as Cole crops (i.e not bok choy). Interestingly Bro means flower, which makes Broccoli and Cauliflower oddly similar. Cole Slaw may be the most unappetizing salad name out there. Slaw is a crudely anglicized interpretation of the Dutch word for salad. And the name for Cabbage itself is a bit of an outlier having been derived from the Middle English word for head - “caboche”.

The Brassica family gets it’s Crucifer name from the shape of its flower. Ever noticed that Broccoli flowers look a lot like Canola? Turns out Brassicas have a Crucifer (Cross) shaped flower (usually yellow or white).  You’ve probably seen some of these crops flower, such as Canola and Arugala but may not have witnessed Kale of Cabbage flowers. Some Brassicas, like many other vegetables, are Biennial. That means they produce flowers and seeds in their second year (similar to Carrots). Kale flowers are delicious if you can find them.

Speaking of Canola, that ubiquitous Prairie crop, is indeed a Brassica. The name CANOLA is actually a modern creation from CANada Oil Low Acid (or perhaps Ola meaning oil). It had the misfortune of being known as Rape Seed. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds since it was from the old Latin word for turnip - rapa. Just like Rappini.  

The Brassica family is huge, diverse, and quite incestuous – both in genetics and names. Their popularity among many cultures has lead to a slew of names which English has adopted haphazardly. Genetically there are three dominant Species in the family with a complicated history. Some were originally from Europe and others from East Asia and then people started playing with. Not even all the Cabbages are from the same Species (Napa versus Red Cabbage). 

One more thing. I have no idea what is going on with this family name in French. Someone please help me. What does "Chou" mean? Chou fleur, Chor frisee, Choux de Brusselles, Chou croute.

Finally here’s an incomplete list of Brassicas. Might not have realized you were eating brassicas for dinner! Which one is your favourite? 

In no particular order:
Broccoli, Rapini, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Savoy Cabbage, Napa Cabbage
Brussel Sprouts, Kale, Collards, Kohlrabi
Arugala, Watercress
Tatsoi, Mizuna, Mustard Greens, Bok Choy
Turnip, Rutabega, Radish
 Daikon, Horseradish, Wasabi, Mustard Seed, Canola
And more…

Brocoli: A Flowering Stalk.

Growing Kale at Bread and Butter Farm for Winter Harvest

The plant with many names: Black Kale, Lacinato, Tuscan Kale, Dinosaur Kale.

Captain Andrew Kale at Halloween

Alien shaped Kohlrabi (this one is purdy ugly).
Discussing Rutabegas at the FTP farm with Laura

"Oh boy, can't wait to get me some Brussel Sprouts."

Brussel Sprouts: They came from the Low Countries and we all love 'em!

February 25, 2014

"What does FARM mean?"

Time to get word nerdy. Farm – it’s a hot word these days. But what does it mean? I'm not talking about whether it's a verb, noun, or adjective - it's all of those. 
When we brush aside the quaint image of the homestead farm, we get to a more complicated truth about farming and who controls the land. What’s hidden in the very root of the word is the troubling historical context that is still very much an issue today.

What got me thinking about the word farm was noticing a farm name, in French, painted on a silo in Quebec. The French word for farm is ‘ferme’. Pretty eh? Funny enough “ferme” has other meanings including -“firm, hard, constant, fixed, solid, or definite.”  Ok now, keep in mind that I'm not an etymologist, just curious.


My amateur research led me to the Old English and Medieval Latin roots of the word. It looks like the meaning evolved during the period of Feudalism between 9th and 15th centuries. This was a time when a Lords controlled much of Europe and leased land to peasant farmers in order to generate revenue for their castles and armies. 

The word “ferme” came from the Medieval Latin “firma” and referred to fixed contracts in which peasants worked the land for a “fixed payment, rent, or lease”.  Sometimes land was inherited, other times, the contract terminated at death. So the farmers didn't actually own their land. Think of it as a mortgage to land you’d never own. And secondly the fees/taxes were fixed, rather than being a form of percent income tax as we know it today. Through good years and bad, regardless of your harvest, they had to pay up. It was not an easy arrangement for farmers.There's a hilarious Monty Python Skit from the Quest for the Holy Grail. Check it out!

As far away as we are from the dark days of Medieval Europe, I wonder if we’ve completely left behind this original concept of “farm”.  I find it interesting how an activity such as farming can go through so many centuries of changes and yet still struggle around the most basic of needs – land.  


What I've been hearing over and over again are that farmers today are often up to their eyeballs in debt. Between mortgages, leased equipment, and loans for buildings; there're lots of ways to accumulate debt. International trade and consolidation have driven down food prices driving a mad scramble for farms to get bigger or get out. The hope is that increased production will offset increased costs and make up for the increasingly tight market. It happens at many scales of farming but particularly has hit mid-sized family farms the hardest over the past 30-40 years. 

And although many farmers do hold the deed to their property, if crops falter for too many seasons, they might just lose it to the bank. Exit becomes very challenging to heavily indebted farms. Do you sell out to your (in-debted) neighbour and move into town? If your children are actually interested in farming, they might try to take it on – if they somehow afford to buy you out. Debt gets transferred on with the farm. I wonder where does the debt stop? And if farmers must perpetually live in debt, then who really controls the land?

Ok, now I've got a couple examples to get your head out of the gloom that is industrial-commodity farming. Let's look at a couple alternative ways that farmers are accessing land.

Land Trusts 


In Vermont I saw many great examples Land Trusts allowing farmers to get on the land. The Vermont Land Trust buys the development rights to the land, preventing it from being sold for housing developments or mines for example. Funds are raised through donations from citizens, towns, the State, and other groups that want to see farmland used for farming. In simple terms, this allows individuals or groups to purchase properties at the price significantly lower than the market value. The landowner still has the option to sell the property and will get what they paid for it plus improvements (up to an certain amount).

Both Wellspring Farm, near Montpelier, and Bread and Butter Farm near Burlington, are excellent examples of Land Trusts working for private farms. The Land Trust as lowered the cost of entry substantially and as a result is conserving pristine countryside and allowing local food production. Awesome farms - check them out.
Wellspring Farm
Bread and Butter Farm -  Beef, Butter, Winter Greens!

Another great example of Land Trusts at work is at Burlington's Intervale. Thanks to a Land Trust, The Intervale Center has been able to acquire hundreds of acres of prime farm land in Burlington, which it then leases to new and experienced farmers at a low cost. It's been an important incubator of new farms since the 1990's. I got to work on two very different farms at the Intervale - The Invervale Community Farm, a 44 acre, cooperatively owned CSA farm; and Half Pint Farm, a 2-acre privately owned, success story.

Intervale Community Farm
Harvesting Romaine at Half Pint Farm

Land Share 


Then there is the SPIN farming model (Small Plot INtensive) that has really raised attention of using borrowed land as a way to keep costs down. It's a neat concept and reminds us that there is plenty of unused land space all around us. I like the idea of using lawns to grow vegetables and in fact this summer that's what we plan to do. 

There are also website's such as Land Share Canada popping around the world. So far there's not a lot of activity on the site but I did get a response back about one yard in Calgary (unfortunately is was washed out in a flood last summer). And then there is the good old fashion way of looking for land by knocking on neighbours doors and putting up posters (both online and on lamp posts). 

On Borrowed Ground CSA in Edmonton or Green City Acres in Kelowna are great examples of the sharing land.

So to wrap this up I don't want to give the impression that I dislike the word 'farm'.  Clearly it's a powerful word and one that we can easily identify with. The organic farms that I mentioned above all use  the word "farm" in their names - even SPIN farming uses it. I just find this word to be an interesting vehicle for reflecting on the tenuous and important relationship that farming has with land. 

The challenge of getting land and keeping it is older than our time. It's precious. Land has often been associated with control - whether that's control over your own life or in the case of a feudal Lord, control over your fiefdom.

February 04, 2014

Mountain Bars - Gluten Free, Awesome, Addictive

Chomping on an energy bar at Healy Pass
I've been making this these Mountain bars since I adapted an energy bar recipe in 2009 from the Joy of Cooking.  They have come with Meghan and I on so many backcountry trips I can't keep track... Bugaboos, Assiniboine, Wapta, Egypt Lake, Fundy, Loch Alva and many more. There are a huge hit with everyone we travel with.

They are especially great in the winter - the cold keeps them from crumbling and yet they don't get rock hard like so many other bars do. They are packed with calories to keep your furnace burning on ski and climbing trips. I've tried many recipes and after find that these bars sit well in my stomach.  Just the right combination of fat, carbs, and proteins for quick and sustained energy.

They hold together pretty well (I recommend freezing them before cutting). For longer trips I wrap them individually in parchment paper and store in a ziploc bag (this also keeps us honest to our daily rations!). They don't last long around the house so better to make them just before the trip!

  • 1 cup Rolled Oats (I use Only Oats because they are Gluten Free and delicious)
  • 3/4 cup Flour (*I make them Gluten Free* See note below)
  • 1 cup (packed) Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 Tbsp Cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cup Dried Fruit (could be a mix of raisins, chopped apricots, cranberries)
  • 1 cup chopped Nuts/Seeds (In this order depending on what I have on hand- Almonds, Walnuts, Pumpkin Seeds, Sunflower Seeds, Buckwheat groats)

  • 3/4 C Melted Butter (Dairytown Butter if you can get it!)
  • 2 tsp Vanilla

Ginger Version is so good! 1/2 cup Chopped Crystallized Ginger  & 1 Tbsp Ginger Powder
1/2 cup chopped Milk Chocolate
*Gluten Free*: If you're making them Gluten Free like I do, then I would recommend GF Oats, standard featherlight flour (white rice, potato flour, and tapioca starch) and 1-2 tsp of ground Chia Seeds or 1/2 tsp Xanthum gum. 


Mix all dry ingredients in large bowl (oats, flour, nuts, fruit, etc)

Melt Butter in Microwave/stove until liquid. Add Vanilla.

Now add the melted butter to the dry ingredients and stir together well.

Pour this sticky-gloppy mixture into a 9"x9" greased (buttered) cake pan.

Bake at 350 F for 35-40 minutes until top is browned. You'll see some butter bubbling around the edges.

Let cool/freeze before cutting to keep them from crumbling. Keep the extras in the freezer. They freeze well because there isn't any water in the recipe, just fat!

Sticky but not wet texture

Tamped down ready to bake
Bars on our ski camping trip to Skoki

 gluten free, energy bar, granola bar, camping, skiing, graham waugh, wapta, skoki, assiniboine,

December 01, 2013

Permaculture and Farms in Vinales

Oxen preparing the soil.
Typical Vinales horse cart heading to town from the countryside.
We had our first experience on a permaculture farm in Cuba when we were staying in Vinales. Vinales is reportedly home to some of the world’s best tobacco farms but we were more interested in the fields of black beans, corn, rice, and wheat. The farms cover every inch of the valley floor butting right up against the dramatic jungle topped Mogotes. The town pulsed with farming life. Farmers in cowboy hats and rubber boots pedaled their old single speed bicycles along main street. Horse carts and oxen competed for road space with tractors and tour buses. Somehow despite the huge amount of tourism passing through this quiet valley the locals carry on with their lives.

It was on one of our long wanders through the countryside that we came across La Chiquitica Organic Farm. Miguel Veliz Collazo welcomed us in for a tour of his permaculture gardens and food forests. With Meghan as a translator we learned that he has been teaching and farming for 25 years and that he works with kids and has hosted UBC students. He took us to feed his pigs that lived alongside turkeys and chickens in a forest of banana and citrus. And then with great enthusiasm explained his HuManure composting system! I was bursting with things that I wanted to say but poor Meghan could only translate so fast. Our tour moved on to his herbal compost tea concoction for combating against pests. We left with mouths agape and hands filled with bananas and citrus. In exchange all he wanted was for help share what he does online.

We met anything fascinating farmer while wandering near Vinales. Raul Reyes has an organic farm on the path to the Cueva Vacca at the base of a dramatic jungle covered Mogote Mesa. Which also happens to be an amazing rock climbing crag. Raul was a weathered old man that you could tell was really proud of his farm and what he grew. He had bananas, pineapples, peanuts, wild honey, home roasted coffee, handmade cigars, and fresh squeezed unsweetened juices. His produce was far fresher than what we’d find on the produce carts in town and we’d always come away with a few freebie bananas.

Cows are protected in Cuba. Killing one could land a Cuban 7-12 years in jail! 

Everywhere we went we saw Cubans in clean crisp clothing. I love this photo. The red dirt road, dog, baby clothes, and trimmed grass. 
Miguel the farmer, philosopher, and teacher. I'm holding the fruit he gave us in exchange for sharing his info online. 

Feeding the pigs in the food forest. I like food forests that include animals for meat :)

Noisily chowing down on some soaked banana (grown overhead). A chicken awaits scraps. 

On one of epic country walks near Vinales. Off the tourist path you see the life unfold. Moments later we watched as a frustrated young man tried to drive his oxen down to the water hole and got stuck in a rut. 

Our smiles hide our weariness from hours under the hot sun…lesson learned. Bring two broad brimmed hats!

Finca Raul Reyes market stand. The best place to stop for a juice after a day climbing in the mountains surrounding Raul's fields.

A caballero and his horse.