RALEIGH – A team of scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina announced today a discovery that may explain why so many Thanksgiving dinners go downhill so fast and end so unpleasantly.
The team of biologists and chemists determined that yams (Dioscorea species) -- which are often very mistakenly called sweetpotatoes (Ipomoea batatas) -- contain a precursor to truth serum (sodium pentothal). This chemical (sodium quattrothal) reacts with agents in the toasted marshmallows, a sweet confection of a spongy consistency traditionally used as a topping on holiday yam sidedish preparations. In the heat of an oven, the chemicals in each combine to form the complete truth serum molecule.
When consumed in sufficient quantities, a generous second helping is usually enough, the sodium pentothal takes effect. The honest comments then follow. These moments of candidness, say UNC’s sociologists who observed over 200 Thanksgiving dinners in their natural setting, lead directly to the sticky messes that followed.
"Every dinner we observed ended when Uncle Pete stormed out of the house, after Cousin Suzanne told a story about that summer at Grandma's house, and the 'wellhouse incident'," said UNC's noted social psychologist, Darko Milosovic. This happened consistently when candid yams were served but never, during any of the almost 100 family holiday dinners observed, when sweetpotato casserole was served instead.
NC State nutritionist Gordon Flattus said that though the two vegetables are visually similar, the yam has more natural sugar (and, thus, calories) and less vitamins A and C (both antioxidants). So, sweetpotatoes are the better choice nutritionally -- and socially.
A social environmental impact study of cost of candid yam sidedishes (as compared to a baseline of sweetpotato casserole) showed that candid yams have social costs of $6.6 billion per year in the U.S. alone.
Obesity and its attendant medical woes, such as diabetes and heart disease, caused $1.6 billion of these costs. The bigger costs, heretofore unmeasured, related to domestic violence (including number of police calls, days in jail and prison, and criminal court costs) amounted to $2.2 billion per year.
But, in a finding that surprised even the multi-disciplinary research team, the costs of civil litigation amounted to $2.8 billion per year. Many of these costs had not been noted before as they are lagged, often by years, and so didn't appear in the more typical short-term study.
The team's legal expert, UNC’s Stephen B. Gruber, said the obvious libel and divorce suits were a factor, the biggest impacts came from previously unnoted contentious will caveats and the extended time that estates stayed open in the candid-yam families.
"Among the candid-yam families, many estates with larger pools of heirs were completely drained of their resources before the multiple suits, claims, caveats and counterclaims were settled," said attorney Gruber.
In the end, in most cases, only the lawyers got any money, said Gruber.
Earlier family studies research had attributed holiday discord to excess consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially mulled wine, spiked eggnog and, among families of Scandanavian descent, glögg.
However, these ethyl-based theories were never fully accepted as they failed to account for the holiday blowups among AA members and conservative Baptists. Candid yams, the team pointed out, do.
According to noted food historian, Waverly Root, the historic shift from sweetpotatoes to yams in confectionary desserts and sidedishes pre-dates the meteoric rise in non-personal injury lawsuits by the same 8- to 10-year lag found in the NCSU/UNC study.
My name is Gary D. Gaddy and I approved the preceding announcement. Paid for by the Committee to Elect Gaddy Official Town Dunce.
A version of this article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday November 22, 2007.
Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy