Now that we are getting close to Thanksgiving a lot of people are blogging about traditional holiday food and some of those food items are yams and sweet potatoes. However, most of us have never really seen a yam and what we sometimes call yams are actually just a different form of sweet potato. In a recent article in “Weekend America” I learned that yams originally came from Africa where they were a diet staple. During the slave trade when thousands upon thousands of African natives were kidnapped and thrown into slavery on the shores of North America they did not find the yams that they were used to eating but they did find sweet potaotes. They adoped the sweet potatoes as a substitute and called them “yams” after the tuber from their native homeland. That is how the name “yam” entered the American marketplace and where it remains today even though real “yams” may be hard or impossible to find.
In Mexico we have a sweet potato that is long and purple. It is called a “camote” (kah-MOH-teh). The principal meaning of the Mexican Spanish word “camote” is “sweet potato” but it can have several other meanings depending upon the particular region where it is used and also upon the context in which it is used. When I first came to Mexico I heard a man say something like “Es un gran camote”. I asked him what “camote” meant and from what I could understand of his explanation it seemed that there was a “problema” or “problem” but looking back on it I think he was saying that there was some lie, or trick, or other foolishness that had occurred. In any case I moved to a different part of the country soon after and I was talking with a group of workers one day and thinking that it would be “cool” to use some slang I said “Tengo un gran camote” which is what I thought meant “I have a big problem”. They all stared at me in shock with their eyes wide open like they couldn't believe that I had actually said what I said. Later on I found out that in this region the word “camote” is often used as a euphemism for the male sexual organ. In my ignorance I had just casually announced to them that I had a great big penis. You can imagine my embarrassment. It is just another good example of how you should always make sure of the meaning of a newly acquired Spanish vocabulary word before you actually use it.
In addition to the word “camote” we have the word “camotero” (kah-moh-TEHR-oh). A “camotero” is a street vendor who pushes a cart with a wood fired oven. In this oven he roasts camotes and “platanos machos” (plantain). Both are sprinkled with sugar before roasting and a sweetened condensed milk called “lechera” is poured on before serving. The word “lechera” means “milkmaid” but it is also a brand of condensed milk sold by Nestle in Mexico since 1921. Every so often the camotero opens a valve which releases some water into a pipe running through the hot coals to create steam. It has a whistle on the end where the steam escapes. It sounds like the whistle from an old steam engine way off in the distance. When I first came to Irapuato there were several camoteros and they would appear at dusk. You could hear them coming down the street by the sound of the lonely wail made by their steam whistles. The camotero's cart looks like a little steam locomotive with a chimney that carries off the smoke. The people run out to buy a roasted sweet potato or a plantain for about ten pesos and then they return home to eat it accompanied by a glass of milk. Today Irapuato has only one camotero left and I hope he keeps going for a long, long time because I don't think I want to live in a world without camoteros.
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