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.


affectioknit said... Best Blogger Tips

I did read Portait of a Lady...but it was a long time ago...as I remember it she goes back to her unhappy marriage in the end...I don't remember thinking that it was ambiguous...

...your potatos look yummy!

Have a lovely day!

Bridget said... Best Blogger Tips

parboiling! i love love love making potatoes like that

Crystal said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi, I told Bridget I wanted to go vegan and she recommended me to your blog. Do you have any tips for first time vegans? I don't really eat meat all that often to begin with, mostly just chicken. I use milk pretty regularly but don't really use eggs or anything unless a recipe calls for it.

Thanks for any help you can provide!

Sarah P said... Best Blogger Tips

@Crystal Hooray for going vegan! It sounds like it shouldn't be too hard of an adjustment for you. The biggest hurdle is actually making the decision to go vegan. Non-dairy milk (soy/almond/rice/oat/etc milk, if soymilk doesn't float your boat) comes in so many different flavors and varieties that it shouldn't be hard to replace in your diet.

Other than the non-dairy milk, though, I wouldn't jump right into using vegan analogs to replace all your nonvegan foods at first. (Ie, buying "chick'n strips" and vegan cheese, etc.) They're fine in moderation, but they don't taste like the real thing, which is especially noticeable when you've JUST given up the real thing, plus none of them have particularly great nutritional value. So take this opportunity to learn new already-vegan recipes. Asian, Italian, African, and even Latin foods can be very vegan-friendly, so expand your cooking repertoire now! ALSO there are so many awesome vegan blogs that it should be pretty easy to find food you'll love. And if you can get your hands on any of Isa Chandra Moskowitz's cookbooks, DO IT. She runs the Post Punk Kitchen website and blog; check out the recipes and resources there, too!

Finally, I'd do at least a bit of reading on vegan nutrition. Not because I think you need it (as long as you aren't eating junk food at every meal, you should be fine!), but because so many people in your life are going to be asking dumb questions like "How do you get protein?" and "Won't being vegan make you anemic?" that it's really helpful to have actual science on your side when you answer them.

And please feel free to ask more specific questions or check back in if you have any questions/problems. My email address is spoulette [at] gmail.

jamie said... Best Blogger Tips

i love the potatoes part! seems easy to dish up for a lazy dinner...

Anna said... Best Blogger Tips

I love potatoes there such a comfort food especialy in the winter.

Crystal said... Best Blogger Tips

Thank you for the recommendations! I will definitely check back on your blog from time to time to get more information. I'm glad Bridget linked me here!