Pale sweet potatoes, the world's choice, make him see red


Despite world opinion, I like my sweet potatoes sweet and red.

When I think of a sweet potato, I see a long reddish-orange tuber. It is shaped like a regular potato only skinnier and sunburned. It has a candylike flavor.

But the rest of the world thinks of something else when it thinks of a sweet potato. In every other part of the globe except the United States, the sweet potato is white, or maybe faintly yellow. Moreover, instead of tasting like good candy, the flavor of this paler sweet potato is said to be nutty.

I read this in "Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables, A Common Sense Guide," by Elizabeth Schneider (Harper & Row, $16.95). Ms. Schneider, the author of this authoritative work did not have much good to say about the American favorite, the sweet-tasting, red sweet potato.

In fact, she said the world favorite, and hers, was the paler sweet potato, or boniato. In Cuba, where the boniato is popular, the name means something akin to "sweet and harmless."

To hear her tell it, the contest to see which type sweet potato is the superior spud is not a very close one. The pale sweet potato is the easy winner, she said. "It is not difficult to understand why the vegetable is a staple from Vietnam to Mexico," she wrote. "Sweetly aromatic, creamy-textured, much less sweet than our orange potato, it is fluffier and feels drier in the mouth."

She added that the pale sweet potato was "considerably more versatile than the rich, very sweet -- however delicious -- orange sweet potato which is considered a dessert dish in these same countries."

I couldn't believe it. Not only were we Americans being accused of eating the incorrect color sweet potato, we were also being told we had bad timing. We were eating our red sweet potatoes at the wrong time of the meal. The paler sweet potatoes were supposed to be served with the main dish, and the red sweet potatoes were supposed to be served as dessert.

This criticism got to me. When you are talkin' down our sweet potatoes, you are walkin' on the fightin' side of me.

I believe that one of the things that made this country what it is today, it is our right to eat red sweet potatoes whenever we want to eat them.

Moreover, there is a lot to be said for serving vegetables that taste like dessert during the meal. That is the only way some of us will ever go near a dish of vegetables. If it tastes like brussels sprouts, -- ack! -- we flee.

Finally, I contend that just because a vegetable dish tastes good, does not mean it has to be banned from the table until dessert. At least not in America.

All this fancy talk about the inferior flavor of red sweet potatoes got my back up.

So I went down to the Sunday morning farmers market in Baltimore and looked for the reddest sweet potatoes I could find. I spotted some at the stand run by Robert W. Knopp Jr., who grows sweet potatoes in Anne Arundel County. He also had some baskets of the paler sweet potatoes, but I only had eyes for the red.

I bought the sweet potatoes took them home and considered ways to cook them.

One recipe called for tossing them in a curried soup made with apples. That sounded interesting, but much too worldly. Then I ++ found a straightforward recipe for roasted sweet potatoes in "Emeril's New Orleans Cooking" by Emeril Lagasse and Jessie Tirsch (Morrow $23). It simply called for rubbing sweet potatoes with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, then cooking them in a 400-degree oven.

Our oven, however, had stopped working. It would get up to 250 degrees and quit. Parts to fix it had been ordered, but they would not arrive for several days.

I was not going to let a balky oven stop me from enjoying sweet potatoes for supper. It was time for American ingenuity. It was time to start a fire. I fired up the barbecue grill. When the coals got white hot, I dropped the sweet potatoes, wrapped in foil, into the embers. You couldn't get more patriotic than red sweet potatoes, baked in a barbecue cooker.

I let the foil-wrapped sweet potatoes cook for about 50 minutes, turning them, from time to time with a pair of tongs.

I pulled them out of the fire, pulled off the foil, and spooned them onto my plate, right next to a slice of roast beef.

As I finished my supper, I felt proud to be a sweet-potato-eating American. A man who likes his sweet potatoes, sweet, red, and served before dessert.

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