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Keeping sweet potatoes in stitches
Your mid-week dose of Southern food news
This past Monday, The Food Section published the first review of Epicurean Atlanta. In today’s issue, you’ll find a sweet potato quilt mystery (Vardaman, Miss.); a new Nepalese restaurant (Greensboro, N.C.) and coffee stains that lead back to Elvis (Memphis, Tenn.)
Even the director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Association in Mississippi doesn’t know where all the handmade sweet potato quilts auctioned off at the annual Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival wound up.
For nearly half a century, the association’s website explains, “a group of elderly ladies – our Mothers, Grandmothers and Old School Teachers…stitch(ed) the quilt all year long,” having faith their final product would bring in thousands of dollars for community causes.
While the festival, now underway, still includes a sweet potato banquet; sweet potato pie eating contest; sweet potato sampling and a tractor show, the quilt auction ceased a few years ago, when the youngest of the elders passed away.
“Families have them scattered throughout the area,” Sheila Freeley surmised when asked about the whereabouts of the root vegetable-themed folk art.
Two of them are tucked away at Sylvia Shaw Clark’s house.1 Clark, an extension associate at Mississippi State University, purchased the quilts as heirlooms for her daughters.
“They’re just really beautiful,” Clark says. “I meant to hang them in my house, but that has not taken place: My husband killed a bear, so the bear is hanging where the quilt was going to go.”
According to Clark, the first quilts celebrating Vardaman’s status as “The Sweet Potato Capital of the World,” featured a very simple design.
“The potatoes were almost curvy, I guess,” she says. “Each block was alike with stripping in between: Three across and six up and down.”
In later years, the group adopted a pattern centered on three bright orange sweet potatoes against a neutral background that evolved from cream to stark white. Whoever was put in charge of the quilt for the year was allowed to choose the fabrics, sometimes to the consternation of event organizers with diverging textile opinions. Still, each quilt sold for upward of $1000.
Clark in 1995 took one of the first upgraded quilts to the American Farm Bureau Convention in St. Louis. She went home with a prize.
But the quilt’s most importance performance was as a backdrop: Clark’s quilt hung in the background of countless promotional pictures and in the weeks leading up to the November event, it was tacked to a wall behind a popular WTVA morning show host.
Whether the quilts are fated to exist solely in photographs for most sweet potato fans is an open question, Clark says: “Nobody’s taken it up, but I think there is someone qualified. We just haven’t hunted them down.”
Festival organizers anticipate more than 20,000 people will turn out for the 48th annual sweet potato festival, which began this past Saturday, or about 20 times as many people as live in Vardaman.2 The Sweet Potato Queen Contest is scheduled for tomorrow night.
For more information, visit vardamansweetpotatofestival.com.
Buffets are historically one of the best ways for immigrant restaurant owners to introduce their homeland’s cuisine to American-born eaters unfamiliar with it. Dishes which can be hard to parse on a menu make sense when they’re seen: Customers who might pause at saag paneer, for instance, are comfortable around bitter greens.
Because of the pandemic, the owners of Himalayan Garden Grill Restaurant and Bar in Greensboro axed their plans to install a buffet. Instead, they’re hoping their new restaurant’s name will resonate with diners who aren’t versed in Nepali cooking.
“We’re a small landlocked country but we’re known for our Himalayan range,” Pandey Sahara says. “It was the only way we could connect our culture.”
According to Sahara, the gambit has worked.
Locals since the start of October have flocked to Himalayan for kebabs, momo and khaja platters, furnished with beaten rice; chicken choila, a preparation famed for its heat; piro aloo, a spicy take on pan-fried potatoes, and bhatmas sadheko, or soybean salad.
“I think that’s one of the most popular dishes,” Sahara says of the snack sets. “The curries are getting sold out.”
She adds, “We’re still working on everything because we were not planning to have this much response.”
A patio bar is set to open soon.
Graceland is “for everyone,” the Memphis pilgrimage site promises on its website.
TigerMan Karate Dojo and Museum, by contrast, is for rabid Elvis Presley fans who long to see every object owned, touched, or gifted by The King.
Among the artifacts in the venue’s collection are a schoolbook that Presley signed when he was 10 years old and the ambulance that carried an unconscious Presley away from Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977; a box of tissues sits on the salvaged vehicle’s rear bumper.
“You can’t dabble in Elvis,” says Billy Stallings, who in June opened Presley’s restored karate studio to the public. “You’re either completely on the train or you’re not.”
Stallings’ ticket was punched by his childhood friend, Troy Robinson, who one day invited Stallings over to his Winterville, North Carolina trailer to see his Elvis record collection. Robinson sold him a copy of “Aloha from Hawaii” on cassette tape for $1.
Captivated, Stallings started buying up the Elvis-themed magazines that were newsstand staples in the 1970s.
“Even if you take the music and movies out, there’s something about this guy who was poor and became rich and had these girlfriends and an entourage,” Stallings says of the hold that Presley’s story had on him.
Still, Stallings drifted away from his Presley obsession as an adult. He was busy selling hot tubs in Nashville, a business he eventually promoted via YouTube videos attributed to The Spa Guy.
Problem was, “you only have so many people watching hot tub repair videos.” Stallings decided to broaden his channel’s scope while visiting his daughter in Memphis, where he sent up a drone to capture footage of Vernon Presley’s house. More than 30,000 people watched the resulting video.
As Stallings continued to produce Elvis videos, Presley’s surviving friends and family members became aware of his work. Many of them liked what they saw: Billy Smith, a first cousin who washed Presley’s hair on the day he died, is involved in the TigerMan project.
Stallings also got to know Scotty Moore, Presley’s longtime guitarist. Stallings sold autographed photos of Moore on eBay and would sometimes pester him for more merchandise to auction.
“One day I went to his house, and he was out there throwing rocks in the bucket of a Ford front end loader,” Stallings recalls. “I said, ‘Scotty, have you thought of anything to sell?’ He said, ‘I wish you could sell these rocks and get them out of the yard.”
Moore had long ago turned his living room into a recording studio, so Stallings led him into the kitchen, where Moore liked to sit and drink coffee. Stallings handed him a Sharpie and one of the offending rocks.
“Write ‘Keep on Rocking’ on it,” Stallings instructed.
They sold off every rock at $15 apiece.
Later, Moore gave his coffee-stained coaster to Stallings. It now sits in a cabinet at TigerMan.
Clark wasn’t able to provide The Food Section with any quilt pictures because she was busy getting ready for the massive event.