When a vegetable becomes a city’s standard housewarming gift, it’s a good bet that local residents feel pretty strongly about it. But the tanyah, also known as an elephant ear or coco yam, long ago surrendered its position as Charleston’s favorite bulbotuber.
Elsewhere, the West Indies import was valued for the looks of its leaves. “Caladium esculentum is an important plant with the florist,” floral designer William Scott wrote in 1906, using the tanyah’s scientific name. But he added, “We hear that the tubers of this caladium are cooked and eaten in the south.”
According to research by University of South Carolina professor David Shields, botanist William Bartram in 1791 witnessed coastal Carolinians feasting on roasted tanyahs. Within the following decades, it became a Charleston staple. “The city adopted the Tanyah as a local emblem,” Shields writes.
In 1883, a woman identified by The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist as Mrs. D.M.W. remembered being introduced to the tanyah 40 years earlier, when she first moved to Charleston and strangers sent them over by the bagful. “What was I to do with them?” she asked. “My Irish cook declared them to be nothing better than rotten potatoes, she ‘knew the nasty things well.’ So they laid on the floor of the piazza till my husband came in; he said they were very nice.”
Mrs. D.M.W. instructed her cook to boil the tanyahs like potatoes, which suggests they were cooked whole, probably with their skins still on.
While that was a common way of preparing tanyahs, some tanyah fans swore by the recipe outlined in an 1873 edition of “The Rural Carolinian”: “Cut (the) stems into short pieces; put them into a saucepan with cold water and bring to a boil; pour the water off; add more water and a little salt and cook till tender. Serve with butter, like asparagus.” Alternately, the journal suggested, the boiled tanyah slices could be battered and fried, or mashed; mixed with flour, eggs and milk and baked into a pudding.
“I am anxious to see plenty of tanyahs, for I am fond of them,” one of The Southern Agriculturist’s correspondents opined in 1838.
Like many tanyah backers, the writer promoted the tuber as stronger, cheaper and more wholesome than the potato grown by Northern farmers. If the tanyah was the equivalent of cream cheese, he suggested, the potato was merely skim milk.
Eventually, the tanyah disappeared from Charleston markets, and Charlestonians stopped giving it as a gift. But the plant still grows in area gardens.