Our Woman In Tennessee

Alison Gates


The Mystery of the Roman Sweet Potato

January 1999


Greetings again from Tennessee!

Well the holidays here have come and gone and I write today during a little snow storm which everyone assures me will close the town down. In that respect, snow here is much like snow back home in Seattle. The difference is that the hills here are not so fierce and public transit in Johnson City is not in any danger of causing gridlock from any jack-knifed extra-long busses. The mini-shuttle might have to shorten it's route through campus, though.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the world and it's relationship to the lives of the people who inhabit it. I think I may have mentioned that one of the reasons I came to Johnson City, TN from Seattle WA was my ongoing search for a definition of my country, America. I started this search a little while ago and the whole thing began to accelerate when I headed off to Rome, Italy in the fall of 1997. I had up until that point envisioned myself as isolated from America because I lived in the upper left-hand corner of the map, practically in Canada. Once in Italy I realized that I was a lot more connected to the rest of America than I had imagined - don't get me started on the glories of American plumbing - and I was in fact revealed as a patriot of sorts.

Having said that, I can't really admit to feeling particularly at home here in East Tennessee except in the shower, which is a good American shower with a tub and a curtain and a Water-Pik showerhead. I have however, discovered that the mysteries of Rome do somehow have a way of revealing themselves to me here in an astonishing manner. Take for instance, the Thanksgiving Sweet Potato Incident.

While in Rome my school celebrated Thanksgiving by giving us a feast of turkeys roasted in the ovens at the bakery across Campo Di Fiori, the Forno. The students potlucked the rest of the meal and I shortsightedly signed up for the sweet potato group - I have a very good recipe without marshmallows which I got strangely enough from Aunt Bee's Mayberry RFD cookbook written by cast members from the Andy Griffith Show. That show takes place down the road a piece, in No'th Carolina. (Yes, there really is a Mount Pilot!) Anyway, not being much of a botanist, I didn't realize until too late that the sweet potato is a very new-world vegetable. The yam, of course seemed more world-wide as tubers go, but in the end, when my roommate Saint Nancy described the item of interest to the vendor in the Campo it came out sort of as "A root from America, brown, not a potato but like a potato, and sweet, orangish inside."

Well, the "farmer" got me a root. It bore some resemblance to a sweet potato, but with tree bark, and it seemed to have been dipped in paraffin wax. I took it home to our apartment in Prati and attempted to cook the thing. I decided to bake it. Five minutes later the kitchen was filled with thick black smoke - exactly the kind you get if you burn paraffin wax. I pulled the offending object out of the oven and attempted to scrape off the wax. This didn't really work. I tried peeling. This worked to some extent and finally after much struggle I pulled a baked, slightly scorched looking white tuber out of our oven. Attempts to doctor it up revealed that the product sold to me as a sweet potato was not sweet in any way, nor was it even slightly orange inside. Conference with my roommates, sent to the Standa for brown sugar and pecans, brought the realization that pecans are not European (though hazelnuts abound) and brown sugar is evidently an oddity not seen at the likes of our neighborhood Standa - a sort of miniature K-mart of a place with groceries in the basement.

I hope you're seeing what I did not see. I hope you are educated enough to know that sweet potatoes, pecans and sugar are crops that made the huge plantations in the North American South. In the end, with some Sicilian orange juice, a lot of white sugar, and some walnuts, I arrived at my Roman Thanksgiving with a strange gluey concoction never before seen on a buffet table. People did eat it, no one died, and the pan was soaked for a week before it would come clean. Still, the holiday was fun. Someone had gotten a hold of an un-dubbed copy of Young Frankenstein and we lay about the lecture room and laughed ourselves sick on Mel Brooks.

The last time I told this story I was sitting in Bello Vita here in Johnson City. One of my students who has an Italian mother had recommended this place to me, since the people that work there all have actual Italian accents and the food is really quite something compared to the endless selection of franchise dining that makes for eating out in Johnson City. The person to whom I was relating this tale is the drawing teacher, a woman of Italian decent, who tries periodically to make me appreciate the finer things in Johnson City. For instance, this is the woman who drove me up to Bristol, TN to take a look at the "Fantasy in Lights" show at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The Bristol Motor Speedway is a Winston Cup NASCAR race track, and the exciting thing about the light show is that you get to drive on the actual race track as a part of the admission price. This alone was a thrill, but coupled with the actual artistry of the light show, (which by the way included lighted elves flipping electric burgers outside "Santa's Camper") this was a pretty great entry in the big book of "Only In America" experiences. Anyway, this drawing teacher inspired me to tell my tale because I believe we were actually talking about the produce department at our local Winn Dixie.

The Winn Dixie Marketplace is a new grocery store in town and it's quite large, the kind with it's own bakery and deli sections and all the cut-out life-size NASCAR racers set up to advertise Coke and Pepsi at the end of the aisles. I had, soon after moving here, been in the Winn-Dixie in search of tofu. Tofu shares no Southern heritage with any of the foods mentioned above. Sometimes tofu finds itself in the produce section near the vegetables most likely to be chosen for a stir-fry. Sure enough, the Winn-Dixie people had the tofu perched above some exotic looking star-fruit and cactus ears amongst the mushrooms and jicuma and elephant garlic (don't look for the logic here, it's a visual thing.) I approached the tofu and then, something caught my eye. Peeking out from just under the neat squares of soy, a root vegetable. A waxy, tree-bark encrusted root vegetable. The tag below it read: "Yucca Root. Native to South and Central America. Peel, sauté with garlic and onions till soft."

Hence, the answer to the Roman Sweet Potato mystery found in the Winn-Dixie Marketplace of Johnson City Tennessee.

The drawing teacher and I went to pay after we'd finished our meal at the Italian restaurant. The man behind the counter told us this American holiday was killing his business for the week. I told him I'd spent the last Thanksgiving in Rome, and that we'd had turkey roasted by the Forno. He said, he didn't like turkey much, but oh! He very much liked all the other stuff we put around it. Well, of course, a turkey is a turkey, Rome or Johnson City or wherever - but a sweet potato is only a sweet potato for sure one place on earth.

You too can discuss tubers with Our Woman In Tennessee.
Alison Gates can be reached at aligates@hotmail.com