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Opinion: Why I will never, ever eat sweet potatoes. I blame my Kenyan childhood

Joy Ho/NPR

Updated November 24, 2022 at 7:17 AM ET

Growing up in the 1980s and early '90s on the Kenyan Coast, I did not have the privilege to choose the foods I could eat. Rather, my parents would serve my siblings and me the food that was in season or that had survived the scorching sun, insect pests and plant diseases — harvested from their farm or purchased at the market.

Most of the time, these food crops included cassava, pumpkin, the "boko boko" banana — and sweet potatoes. Plenty of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes as well as pumpkins and cassava were the go-to breakfast, lunch and dinner food. They were the everyday food whether we liked it or not. Of course, there was only one way they were cooked — and that was by boiling.

Day in and day out, we would consume these foods. Ultimately, it got to a point where we could not take sweet potatoes and cassava anymore. And yes, there were times we chose to go hungry rather than eat sweet potatoes. That's right: We children would rather skip lunch and dinner and go hungry than eat the same old sweet potatoes and cassava.

These experiences with sweet potatoes and cassava while growing up made me hate these foods as an adult. And I am not alone. Many of my family members, including my brother and three sisters, do not love sweet potatoes and cassava at all. As a matter of fact, after we grew up, our parents stopped growing them. No one — and I mean no one — had any more appetite for these root vegetables.

My hate for sweet potatoes is still active today. I know it is many people's favorite food, especially during Thanksgiving. I know sweet potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse.

I've also learned that my mom is in fact a big fan of sweet potatoes. She grew up eating them, she loves how they taste, and she loves the memories of eating them when she was a child and then when she was raising us children. She told me that she'd often accompany sweet potatoes with a tomato stew made from tangy wild-growing tomatoes. So she has delicious memories.

And I will confess that in a corner of my heart, I do appreciate the sweet potato. I'm grateful that my parents had these tubers to serve us.

But as to this day, I still say NO to sweet potatoes. They remind me of what it's like to grow up without a balanced diet, without being able to choose what kind of food you'd like to eat each day.

Maybe one day – say, in another 10 years or so — I'll overcome my negative feelings and see what it's like to eat a luxurious sweet potato side dish – perhaps topped with marshmallows!

But not this year. I went to lunch not too long ago with some friends. One of them ordered a sweet potato. And I thought: Heck, no!

Esther Ngumbi is a researcher at the University of Illinois and a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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Esther Ngumbi