Granny’s Secret Vanilla Oakland Yams

By Chef Mimi Robinson | Illustration by Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh

What I remember most about my Granny’s kitchen is the smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla when she baked what we called her Oakland Yams.

Granny grew her own yams right in her backyard in North Oakland. When I was young, she would tell me stories about how the yams, which grew underground, represented the color of our skin, and she asked me to feel the earth around the vines. I felt lucky to be attached to things that were so naturally sweet, my Granny and the yams.

Granny taught me that the African name for yam is “nyami,” and she gave me the nickname “Mimi” for short. Having access to Granny’s garden, where I could get fresh, homegrown food, was the beginning of my true love for food.

This recipe is special because it represents a food that was brought from Africa and celebrated during the winter season. This dish is traditional to Black grannies who have made it to grace many American tables.

Serves 6–8
6 medium yams (See note*)
8 tablespoons salted butter
1 cup granulated white sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350°.
Wash the yams, peel them, and slice ½-inch thick. Place into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish or cast-iron skillet.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle in the white and brown sugars, ground cinnamon, and ground nutmeg, stirring to mix thoroughly. Turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Pour this candy mixture over the yams and stir to coat all the slices. Cover the dish with foil and place in the preheated oven to bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the yams from the oven, baste them with the candy mixture, then cover again and bake the yams for another 15 to 20 minutes or until you can put a fork into them.

Remove the yams from the oven, sprinkle salt, then let sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

Don’t forget to sprinkle on some love.

*Note: In the United States, certain orange types of sweet potatoes are referred to as yams. The true yam, which is larger, fibrous, and not very sweet, is rarely grown or marketed outside of Africa or the Caribbean.

A Bay Area native, Chef Mimi is the creator of Oakland’s Black Food & Wine Experience and the upcoming web series and cooking competition, Bringing It to the Table. She is currently writing plant-based recipes for Impossible Foods. Keep up with her on Instagram @iamchefmimi.

Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh is a teaching and visual artist based in Oakland. She draws artistic inspiration from history, memory, and the concept of visual storytelling. Her work has been featured in galleries and publications across the globe. Enjoy more of her work on Instagram @disfordilettante.