Grand Strand Food History: How Sweet Potatoes Helped Win a War

Grand Strand Food History: How Sweet Potatoes Helped Win a War

Guest post by Becky Billingsley

Sweet potatoes have been a part of the American diet since native Indians cultivated them, and the almost nutritionally perfect tuber helped local Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion and his troops achieve victory.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest named sweet potatoes as its number one pick as a Super Food, saying they are, “…one of the best vegetables you can eat. They’re loaded with carotenoids, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.”

Sweet Potato from John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597).

Francis Marion may not have known the specifics of sweet potato nutrition, but as a farmer he understood they are healthy and tasty, and they traveled well with his ragtag Patriot brigade. Marion’s guerilla warfare tactics included hiding out in the swamps of Horry and Georgetown counties from where they ambushed British soldiers, which earned him the nickname The Swamp Fox.

Many accounts tell of Marion and his men dining on roasted sweet potatoes, and little else, served on pine bark plates.

One legend, immortalized in a famous 1836 painting by John Blake White, tells the story of a British officer–some say it was Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton–whom Marion invited to dinner. The meal took place at Marion’s Snow’s Island camp, where his troops rested and regrouped between battles, and the invitation was “under a flag of truce,” according to a recount from

When the officer arrived, he was surprised to, “find the entire force dining solely on a meal of sweet potatoes, because no other food was available. When the British officer returned to Charleston, he resigned from the army rather than fight an enemy that was willing to fight for a cause while living on so little food.”

A painting of “General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal.”

Of course sweet potatoes’ nutrition is maxed out when eaten in its natural state, skin included. Adding brown sugar, butter, maple syrup and other common toppings reduces their inherent low glycemic index (as opposed to white potatoes, which have a high glycemic index).

Grand Strand Food History will be an occasional series as Becky Billingsley conducts research for A Culinary History of Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand: Fish and Grits, Oyster Roasts, and Boiled Peanuts, scheduled for production in July 2013.

Here’s a good-for-you sweet potato recipe based on one from the late Chef Bill Sawyer of Pawleys Island. I lightened up the ingredients to make the dish more nutritious, so we can all aspire to be as lean and energetic as The Swamp Fox.

Sweet Potato Salad

12 ounces Duke’s Mayonnaise: Light, Fat-Free or Cholesterol-Free

1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon

2-3 tablespoons local honey

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3-4 large sweet potatoes, skin-on, cubed and cooked in water until al dente

2 Granny Smith apples, unpeeled, cored and chopped

12 ounces fresh pineapple, peeled and chopped

30-40 seedless grapes, halved

½ cup unsweetened grated coconut

1 cup toasted pecans, chopped

2 stalks celery, thinly sliced


Combine first four ingredients in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss gently so as not to break the sweet potato cubes. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve.


  1. Funny how the sweet potato is being redeemed these days.

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