Portrait of a Lady: European Potatoes

I love food and I love to read. As a result, each month, I combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I mostly stick with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


People who read Henry James tend to have really dramatic opinions of him: he's either an amazing, complex writer, or he's the most boring author in the English language. I will let you all know right now that I come firmly down in the "Henry James is a genius" camp. I've read almost all of his works, and both my entrance essay and my writing sample for my master's program mentioned Henry James. 19th century realism is serious business for me.

BUT, for all the James I've read, I have always been a little embarrassed to admit I had not yet read Portrait of a Lady, one of his most well-known works. I decided to remedy that problem this fall.
The theme sounds ridiculous today, but the vast, vast majority of Henry James's fiction deals with a sophisticated Europe corrupting naive, pure Americans. An American who spent the majority of his life in England, James saw America, the New World, as having a fresh start, full of enterprising and moral people. They tend to be honest, sincere, a little awkward, and not in the least bit cunning. Europe is the exact opposite. James's European characters never say what they mean; they go through the forms of courtesy and morality but only to mask their real motives and intrigues. Inevitably, the corrupt, decaying Old World has a tragic, if not fatal, effect on the ingenue New World. They don't always do it on purpose, but James's Europeans, if not Europe itself, are downfall of his American characters.

Remember that James was writing at the end of the 19th century. The United States were still following Washington's precedent of isolationism. The Monroe Doctrine nicely kept Europe away from the Americas. We were removed enough to have our own culture, and access to culture was one based not on old, prejudicial class systems but on hard work and good decisions. James loved the idea of America, and was disappointed whenever Americans looked to Europe as an example of refinement or just of something better.

ANYWAY, Portrait of a Lady deals with these issues, but not in a dry history-lesson way like I did above. A young American woman, Isabel Archer, comes to England to meet her extended family, and while there comes into a lot of money. (Which, for James, is also a corrupting force.) Suitors are suddenly everywhere! Isabel is too innocent and pure to be protective or suspicious of herself or her money, and a few cunning, greedy people conspire to trick her out of her money, and out of her chance of a happy life, basically. There are good people, of course, who try to help her. IT'S SO GOOD AND INTENSE AND AWESOME. There's also a giant SECRET that you spend a good half of the book trying to figure out and then THINKING you have it figured out but no, that can't happen in this book, right? IT DOES. So yeah, I recommend this book, even though it's tragic. I've read reviews of it that found its ending ambiguous; let me know if you've read it, because I didn't think it was ambiguous at all and I'd be curious to hear that perspective.

So, onto the food! The best part. Okay, so James does offer a little proof that it's capable for Americans to interact with Europe without being corrupted. That proof is named Henrietta Stackpole. Henrietta is a journalist who ventures to Europe to 1.) write letters back to her paper about her impressions of Europe and 2.) try to meet European nobles. She has no interest in assimilating; she is American, and very much wants to maintain her American perspective. She does not put Europe on a pedestal like so many of James's more doomed Americans; she really believes America does everything better. She is a bit of a comic character (and has the most adorable courtship in all of James's works, in my opinion!), but she is also James's most viable option for intercultural communication without a tragic outcome.

When Henrietta first visits Isabel in England, she sits down to eat with Isabel and her relatives and starts quizzing the family about their connections to the House of Lords right away. She's not starstruck--she wants to discuss British politics. In part to shut her up, Lord Warburton (swoon!) says "Won't you have a potato?"

"I don't care much for these European potatoes," Henrietta says firmly.

Obsessed with food as I am, I had to know how European potatoes were prepared that Henrietta Stackpole's American tastes were against them, so I did a little research. While mashed (or sommmmetimes baked) potatoes were the rule in American kitchens in the 19th century, they were more likely to be served roasted at a wealthier English home. Obviously, they were talking about real (not sweet) potatoes, but since I can't eat potatoes, you're getting the sweet potato version.

European Potatoes
Only white (Japanese) sweet potatoes will work for this; the orange ones get too soft. Obviously you can also use (real) potatoes, but your cooking time might be 10-20 minutes longer. You can use any oil, but I stroooongly recommend olive since it's so tasty.

White Sweet Potatoes (Japanese Yams) - one small-to-medium potato per person
Oil (any kind works, but I prefer olive. At least 1/4 cup, but the more you use, the crispier they'll get)

Preheat your oven to 425. Fill a pot with water and set it on the stove on high. Chop potatoes into large chunks; I'd say at least 2 inches. You can peel them if you want, but I like the skins. Put the chunks into the water as soon as you chop, since white sweet potatoes start to brown when the flesh is exposed to air. Bring to a boil, and allow to boil for at least ten minutes, until you can poke the potatoes with a fork. (It doesn't have to go all the way through, though--as long as the edges are tender.)
Here comes the weird-sounding part. Pour all the water out of the potato pan, then put a cover on it... AND SHAKE IT LIKE CRAZY. The idea is to bang up all the edges of the potatoes, so they get crispy.
They'll look like this when you're done.

Now take out a deep baking pan large enough to fit all the potatoes in a single layer. I've used a roasting pan and my glass baking pans, and both were fine. Pour the oil into the pan. Here's the part where the amount is up to you: the more you use, the tastier and crispier they'll be, plus they won't stick as much to the pan. But you want at least enough to easily and completely coat the bottom of the pan. Add the potatoes, and roll them around a little (with a spoon is cleanest) so all sides have touched the oil. Sprinkle on some salt.

Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from oven and use a spatula or spoon to flip them. The down-facing sides should have browned and all the side should be starting to get crispy. Return to oven for 10 more minutes, then check again: all sides should be crispy and golden to golden-brown. Remove from oven, sprinkle with a little more salt, and serve!

(The baking time can vary based on how long you boiled them and even how much oil is involved, so you may find you need a bit more time.)
They are good for brunch or for dinner! Because of the oil, they're a little decadent and VERY filling.

Next month I'll try to get back to once-a-week posting.


how to make a dress out of a t-shirt that is too big for you

Vegan MoFo kind of burned me out on food blogging, so I'm going to spend a few entries not talking about food. But I promise I'll do a "food from literature" this month, featuring James's Portrait of a Lady. I'll also do a review of our wedding and honeymoon! (I promise to stick mostly to food/crafts so I don't get too sappy.)

Anyway. I don't really wear T-shirts, mostly because I don't look good in them. Even the ones that are cut for women aren't very flattering on me. However, I own a lot of T-shirts, and I really like the designs or messages on some of them, so I try to turn them into things I do like. Last year I posted an entry on making throw pillow covers from old T-shirts; today, a dress!
Before instructions, a couple notes. First of all, I'm not great at sewing. I'm not saying that out of modesty; I mean it. I mostly sew for repairs, and I make the occasional pillow cover. So when I say this dress is easy, I mean it: YOU CAN DO IT! It takes measuring, and a lot of time to sew if you don't have a sewing machine (I don't), but it is not complicated. I give overly wordy instructions, mostly because I hate when I'm trying to do a project and annnnything is left to the imagination (In cases like that, my imagination will inevitably steer me wrong.), but don't let that fool you: this dress is easy.

For this dress, the bigger the T-shirt, the better, since it'll be longer that way. I'm 5'8 and the shirt I used was a large. It's sort of a minidress, suitable to wear to a club night without leggings, but I normally wear leggings with it. I'm sorta prudish, though, and have long legs, so bolder and/or shorter girls would be probably fine without leggings. You can also make this project with a shirt that's more your size, but in that case it'll be more of a tank top or tunic. If you want a dress, I recommend a shirt that is at least two sizes too big (i.e., if you normally wear medium t-shirts, an extra large).

ALSO, until someone complimented this dress, I didn't realize anyone else would want to make it, so this tutorial is written a while after the fact. Soooo you get cartoony illustrations instead of pictures of the first part. (The second part--straps--is easier for me to recreate for photos, since I always have extra sleeves lying around.) In my illustrations, it's a black T-shirt, and the green circle is just to show the location of a design if there is one on your shirt. Red lines mean you should cut there, and blue means sew.
  1. Start with a T-shirt that is too big for you.
  2. Cut away the sleeves, including the seam where it attaches to the shirt. (Save them! We will make straps out of them!)
  3. Cut off the neck and shoulders.
  4. Cut away the seams, if they're there, or just cut the sides open, if it's seamless. If you don't want it fitted, you can just cut straight lines. If you don't want it fitted (that is, if you want it to be be more of a tube dress), move on to #5.
    a.) If you wanted fitted, like I did, measure yourself: bust, waist, low waist, and hip/bum. Make a template of your torso (I used a taken-apart paper grocery bag). Remember to halve your measurements on the template (i.e., if you have a 28" waist, you want to draw a 14" waist, since front 14" + back 14" = 28"). Use it as a stencil on the center of your cloth. Turn the cloth inside-out so your marks won't show in case you make a mistake! Also, as you trace your stencil/template, try to leave an extra 1/4-1/2" on either side to leave room for mistakes/sewing. (You can draw your torso right on the dress if you want to skip the template step, but I'm not that good at eyeballing my shape.)
  5. Turn the front and back pieces inside out, if you haven't already, then pin them together so they don't slip apart and become unsymmetrical while you're sewing. Sew up the sides. If you have a sewing machine, this will probably take you like 2 minutes. If you're like me and are doing it by hand, put on a movie and curl up on the couch with your needle and thread, because this is going to take a while. I use a backstitch, but a running stitch would be fine, or a whipstitch if you didn't leave yourself that extra room for mistakes/sewing.
  6. You have a tube dress! You can stop here and leave it as a tube dress if it's fitted enough not to fall down, and/or you can sew a draw-string into the top of the dress. But if you want straps:
  7. Take one of the sleeves you cut off in step #2. Cut away the seam so that the wider side is even.
  8. How thick do you want your straps? T-shirt material rolls at the edges when cut, so they'll be narrower than what you measure. I wanted straps that were thick enough to cover a bra strap, so I cut out about two inches. You should measure a section almost twice as wide as what you want, so if you want thin of even spaghetti straps, cut it an inch wide. Decide what you want, and cut accordingly.
  9. Cut away the seam. You should now have one strip of cloth.
  10. Repeat with the other sleeve.
  11. Try on your dress and figure out where you want the straps to hit. Like I said, I wanted to make sure it covered bra straps, so I centered the straps over where my bra showed). Pin in place. The straps will probably be longer than your shoulders; cut away the extra material before you pin.
  12. Attach to dress. I used a whipstitch, but it would also be cute to use buttons or broaches or just hold it in place with a series of safety pins.
Note: If you want adorable and/or contrasting straps, you could attach ribbon or something instead of using the sleeves.
You're done! Enjoy the fact that you just turned a T-shirt into a dress.