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