Folks are familiar with sweet potatoes; their rustic brown skin which yields to a rich flesh with hues ranging from tangerine to persimmon are found on tables far and wide, especially in the autumn. But in one of Coastal Virginia’s more rural spots, the beautiful Eastern Shore, there’s another spud that gives the traditional taters a run for the money.
Somewhere in the mid-19th century the Hayman sweet potato began appearing on the Shore. It took to the sandy, loamy soil and the tempered climate between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
So what’s special about the Hayman?
It is smallish and has a much more muted sepia exterior than other sweet potatoes. Cut it open, and the flesh is a creamy white with just the slightest, muted underlying shade of robin egg blue. Cook it, and the blue amplifies a bit, and also takes on a mossy green tint. The Hayman is also a bit fussier to grow, and over time, farmers rejected it in favor of other sweet potatoes that yielded a better crop—and hence better profits.
Tradition says it gets its name from a sea captain who brought it here after returning from some faraway journey. Just where he obtained the potato in the first place has been lost over time. And indeed the Hayman was almost lost over time altogether. Original seed remains hard to find, but there are still crops planted here and, as far as we know, here and nowhere else in the world.
It’s not the only white-fleshed sweet potato; there is another one you’ll find from time to time called O’Henry. And there are other heirlooms—white and orange fleshed—like the Hernandez and Evangeline.
But the Hayman is uniquely ours, and despite its fondness among many in the region, outside of Coastal Virginia it remains relatively unknown. Guess that means more for us.
The Scoop On Spuds
- Potatoes, including sweet potatoes are the starchy, tuberous root of a root vegetable. Although colloquially called yams, sweet potatoes are in fact not true yams, which are distinctly different botanically and typically larger, drier and starchier.
- Potatoes are indigenous to the Americas; Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to eat sweet potatoes during their 1492 expedition to North America.
- To early European explorers, some Caribbean natives called the tuber batata and others called it papa which melded into the Spanish patata and later the English potato.
- Potatoes became a source of nourishment early on for Virginia settlers and were a staple in the diet of soldiers during the American Revolutionary War.
- George Washington grew sweet potatoes at Mount Vernon.
An average-sized sweet potato, baked in the skin, is about 180 calories, has no fat or cholesterol, minimal sodium, seven grams of fiber and four grams of protein.
Romancing the Spud
The Hayman sweet potato is like the Holy Grail of tubers; it is indeed an elusive thing. Here are some suggestions on where to dig up a few:
Quail Cove Farms
Farmer Bill Jardine’s Eastern Shore stand offers a variety of produce, including potatoes and sweet potatoes—and often Haymans.
12435 Machipongo Ln., Machipongo
Blue Seafood & Spirits
Chef Charles Thain’s restaurant sources many ingredients from the Eastern Shore and often has Hayman potatoes on the menu.
2181 Upton Dr., Virginia Beach
Buy Fresh Buy Local Hampton Roads
This nonprofit group is a wonderful resource for fresh and delicious edibles in the region.
Get Chef Patrick Evans-Hylton’s recipe for Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes with Dried Cherries and Hazelnuts.