For more than 30 consecutive Thanksgivings — including this one — I’ve written about turkey in all of its guises. Occasionally I’ve protested, pleading with editors that although the bird in its wild form may be traditional and is indisputably indigenous, whether the one you buy is free-range, wild, natural, organic, pumped up with antibiotics or even injected with “butter,” it’s just about the worst piece of meat you can roast.
At the hands of all but the most experienced, careful or lucky cooks, the more than 700 million pounds of turkey we’ll buy this week will wind up with breast meat that’s cottony-dry and leg meat that is underdone, tough, stringy or all three. And although a friend of mine claims that this is how people like it — “it’s exactly how our grandmothers did it, and it’s what we grew up with,” he says — I believe this explains why we waste an estimated $282 million worth of turkey each year, enough to feed each food-insecure American with 11 servings.
It’s not entirely the turkey’s fault; when you think about it, few holidays are really culinary , and in general Thanksgiving is a celebratory feast that has little to do with the harvest or the brilliance of the food but rather family and memories and, usually, obligations.
But rather than get too cynical, allow me to celebrate another symbol of Thanksgiving, another native of the Americas, one that can be, should be and is a staple for millions year-round, one that is underappreciated even on a holiday that celebrates it, one that’s been overcooked, canned, smothered in marshmallows and otherwise abused: the sweet potato.
I am not suggesting that you substitute the sweet potato for the turkey as the centerpiece on your Thanksgiving table, though you could do worse. I am merely saying that the sweet potato deserves more attention and even a bit of praise.
If you bake a sweet potato properly — in its skin, with a few holes poked in it (they’ve been known to explode, in a messy but not dangerous sense) — you will get a combination of textures that no other food can offer, and with no added ingredients: sweet stickiness, from the caramelizing liquid that oozes from the inside out; a little bit of crunchy chewiness, from the parts of the skin that this liquid helps brown; a soft, velvety yet slightly leathery skin, perfectly edible; and, of course, the meltingly tender, ultra-luxurious flesh, which can range from creamy white to familiar orange to deep red and even purple, and is perhaps best enjoyed with a sprinkle of salt.
It’s in this pure form that you will see sweet potatoes eaten in parts of Asia and Africa, out of hand, on the street, in the way we once ate chestnuts and we now eat hot dogs and pizza and cheeseburgers. Why the sweet potato is too simple, crude, healthy and natural for American street food has more to do with marketing than intrinsic value, for if you try a baked sweet potato split with a fork, mashed with a little butter — almost unimaginably rich — then reflect upon how good it might be even without the butter … you might be tempted to take one up in your hand on a cold day and snack on it while walking down the street. Ignore the stares: you’re doing yourself a favor.
I’m not one to extoll the nutritional benefits of one plant over another — we should be eating more of all of them, and less of tortured, chemically enhanced birds — but sweet potatoes are almost unfairly potent, especially when it comes to beta-carotene (happily, made more bio-available when eaten with a little fat), fiber and a host of micronutrients, including not only common ones but those whose benefits are still being explored. If that alone isn’t a reason to eat them, it’s a reason to consider eating them instead of a bag of pretzels when you’re craving starch, or a handful of cookies when you’re craving sweets.
The sweet potato, of course, is not only fit for baking: it can be grated and stir-fried; sliced and steamed, sautéed, broiled or roasted; wrapped in foil and baked in a fire; fried or, even better, cut into “fries” and baked with a little oil until crisp (or included in tempura); made into soup, a pasta sauce, a filling for ravioli or pie; used as a thickener; dried and eaten as a snack; reheated and drizzled with olive oil; braised in curries or soy-based dishes or European-style stews. Turkey, actually, is not nearly as versatile.
North Carolina has long been our leading sweet-potato-growing state, but thanks to global warming the crop is moving north, and they are now routinely, reliably and happily grown by friends of mine throughout New England.
They keep all winter; actually, they’ll keep through next summer. They’re always there. They cost next to nothing. When you peel them, or bite into them, their color never fails to surprise you. They are dense, sweeter than most candy and soft. If you didn’t take them for granted, you’d be giving thanks for them. Let’s.