Maybe it was the surprise meeting with a friend from decades ago. Maybe it’s the holidays, the end of the year, the encroaching birthday…but I was feeling a little nostalgic the other day.
There I was, few days past Thanksgiving and the leftovers were nearly all gone, transformed into new dishes (croquettes, soup, muffins) or enjoyed caveman-style late night, head in the fridge. As far as I’m concerned, one of the all-time best things about being a grownup is the ability to eat out of the fridge, standing in the door, sneaking a piece of this or a bite of that. Even if these new fridges beep at you, it’s not your Mom yelling at you to “Shut the goddamned refrigerator!”, even if your Mom didn’t yell that, she definitely yelled some version of it.
Reconnecting with family during the holidays gives us a chance to tell the family stories over again. In the telling and retelling, we renew the ties that bind us together as families. The time that Mom waited so long to buy the turkey that the only one left was the size of my Grandma who soon thereafter left us. I love the photo of us gathered around that behemoth, Grandma’s head barely clearing it.
And the colorful refrain above comes courtesy of my friend Tom McGowan, whose crazy family introduced me to the Irish knack for story-telling years before I moved to Boston. His family story is that his youngest brother Terry literally spoke not a word until one day uttering a complete sentence: “Shut the goddamned refrigerator!” Being the youngest of five, it was the sentence he’d heard most often, you see.
Monday, I got the chance to tell Tom and Cheryl that I recall that story to this day when some new parent is fretting over a child’s reluctance to start using words. A McGowan family story carried forward by an old friend, no doubt being told over again at their family gatherings.
Sweet Potatoes and a Bittersweet Memories
In college I got the chance to see a folk legend, Odetta in a teeny, tiny bar somewhere near my college in New Paltz, in New York’s Hudson Valley. If memory serves it was Kingston, or Rhinebeck, possibly Woodstock. Folk is really not my thing, but I knew that it was an opportunity to learn something new, see an icon perform.
We sat in a tiny room on straight-backed chairs and I was almost close enough to touch the legendary Odetta. In this intimate setting, the room was darkened, a single light overhead, illuminating this commanding, yet gentle African-American singer. She played gently on a smallish, sweet sounding acoustic guitar and sang movingly in her clear and strong voice.
When Odetta sang a song about sweet potatoes (an old traditional children’s song, I think) I was struck by the connection through sweet potatoes reaching back in her history here, slaves growing what they could to survive and my family in Japan. During the war, my grandmother had evacuated the city of Tokyo taking her girls and a cousin far north to escape the impending bombing.
These city kids were fish out of water in the rural north. Their accents, their clothes and their lifestyles completely out of sync in rugged north. Years later my grandmother would lament to me that she feared she failed these kids. So often all they had to eat were sweet potatoes which she grew in a tiny plot of earth she begged use of from some monks. She was sure that she should have and could have fed them better, regretted not having been able to do so. To this day, my mother will not eat dandelion greens, that being one of the few greens they could get their hands on. Foraging was not hip, it was survival.
I was thrilled to meet my mother’s cousin years later in Japan and had to ask him if he hated sweet potatoes. He looked at me quizzically and said “No, why?” I told him of my Grandmother’s burden. We laughed. I don’t remember exactly, but I think she shrugged it off when I told her.
So back to my shared moment with Odetta. I waited in line after the performance, nervously. She had that kind of presence that says “you SHOULD know who I am” without saying a word. When I got my chance to speak to her, her gentle smile became a little forced. I told her of “our connection”, how my grandmother in Japan had fed her family on sweet potatoes during the war….and got a look that said pfft, and Next! So much for a mystical connection with a legend over a humble tuber. The queen had dismissed me. Move along.
Sweet Potato Pie
I think Sweet Potato Pie is sort of a Southern thing, and friends up here generally fall into two camps: one is disappointed it’s not pumpkin and the other is thrilled to find it. I have not met a sweet potato I didn’t like, in almost any form but for the marshmallow topped variety. I love a casserole dish of orange-Bourbon scented sweet potatoes at the Thanksgiving table and they’re often called for by repeat guests. This year we had such a small group, I ended up with leftovers.
I decided that it was time to try a sweet potato pie. Since they’re baked and basted with the brown sugar and Bourbon and orange glaze, these were plenty sweet so I borrowed the template from Joy the Baker and made some adjustments. I had a crust in the fridge, so it was pretty quick to put together. I modified it to make it dairy-free. I loved the results, but cannot, okay will not, eat an entire pie myself and my husband falls into the pumpkin camp.
Luckily I’ve got friends in the building who can help me/save me.
2 C mashed, cooked sweet potatoes (I used leftover Killer Sweets)
3/4 C packed brown sugar (I cut it back to 1/3 C)
1 1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cinnamon (I added more, by accident, not bad)
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 C unsalted butter
1 1/4 C So Delicious Coconut Milk
1/3 C granulated sugar (I used about 1/4 C)
3 large eggs
1 TBSP vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place a rack in the upper third of the oven.
To make the filling, first peel the sweet potatoes. Dice the sweet potatoes into large, 3-inch chunks. Place potato pieces in a large pot and cover with cool water. Place over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender throughout, about 20 minutes. Test the doneness of the potatoes using a thin knife. If the knife meets any resistance, simmer the potatoes a bit longer.
Drain into a colander.
In the same large pot place cooked potato pieces, the packed brown sugar, all of the spices, salt, butter, and half of the evaporated milk. Cook on low flame, using a potato masher to mash the potatoes and they cook. Simmer for about 5 minutes. Make sure that the mixture is as smooth as possible. I used an immersion blender to completely smooth the mixture. Once mixture is smooth and fragrant, remove from fire and let cool in pot.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining evaporated milk, granulated sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract. Whisk well. Pour the egg mixture into the warm sweet potato mixture.
Pour the prepared filling into the pie crust. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees F. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees F and cook until cooked through, about 45 to 50 minutes.
To test the pie for doneness lightly shake the baking sheet. If the center of the pie has a wavy jiggle it needs more time in the oven. If the center of the pie has a lighter, more structured jiggle, it’s done!
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Thanks to Joy for sharing her family recipe and allowing it to become part of ours.