Spiced Sweet Potatoes

by Susie Cagle

Holidays are not a major part of my family’s routine. There are a few reasons for this. First, there are only four of us, even fewer once you reach the first and second degrees of separation in our extended family, and those are all spread far afield, scattered across fly-over states, nestled in inland trailer parks and retirement communities. Second, none of us has any special proclivities toward religion. Third, we are busy. And fourth, we are lazy.

Christmas has always been simply an excuse to give presents. (When in middle school I expressed frustration at my Jewish friends’ eight nights, eight freaking nights of presents versus our one morning, my father offered, “You want to be Jewish? We could be Jewish and do the candles thing if you want. Up to you!”) Last year there wasn’t even a tree — just gifts piled around the fireplace, which houses the television. (Yes, my parents own that DVD of a crackling fire — but usually we’re too lazy to pull it out for the occasion.) And even these presents don’t appear until the eleventh hour, often wrapped minutes before they are unwrapped. It is tradition for at least a few to be forgotten and unearthed during the course of the following week. For more than a few holidays, the family has splurged frequent flyer miles on off-season trips to Europe instead of dealing with any winter holiday traditions at all.

Despite all of this convincing evidence to the contrary, then, Thanksgiving looms large. It is areligious, well-defined in its rituals and everyone has off from work for a couple days — just long enough to feel obligated, but not long enough to escape (unless you count the “Law and Order” marathon — but isn’t that every day?). And so this is the one, and I do mean one, time of year that my family cooks and eats a meal at home.

Though they’ve lived in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley for 22 years, my parents still eat like they’re back in a studio apartment in an old mental hospital in Cobble Hill in 1979 — most meals are taken out, sometimes delivery. They complain about how most of these suburban restaurants close at 9:30, even though they eat at 6. And they have eaten like this for as long as I can remember. This actually meant that we had more quality family meal times than most of my peers (you skip out on the restaurant and the only thing to eat at home might be stale oatmeal, or salad dressing). Still, there were some problems. Sure, I had decently dressed cold-cut sandwiches in my bag lunch every day, but I hadn’t boiled water until after I’d graduated college, except in the microwave.

Traditional gender roles have always reigned supreme in this house, so my mother is saddled with much of the Thanksgiving chores. She does so dutifully, but clearly not happily. There is no flurry of activity, no crazy holiday rush. The day creeps by, one “Law and Order” episode after another, as side dishes are handily, though not quickly, not so much prepared as accomplished. It’s like watching a prisoner mete out their sentence in serving spoons. Tiny painful serving spoons.

We always plan to eat at 4, and never succeed until about 7. By that time, my mother is so beaten down that it takes all four of us just to set the table and shuttle the food the fifteen feet from the kitchen. I don’t think the meal has ever actually been served at the coffee table, TV-side, but it’s come close. Usually that’s just where we eat dessert.

For the last few years, this sentence seems to have grown even more dire, and so my mother has been looking for ways to alleviate the pressure. When my father became diabetic, certain holiday staples were less altered than attacked and cut down at the knees. The pumpkin pie lost its crust and became pumpkin filling, loose and wet in a pie tin (truly); cranberry sauce became sugar-free; biscuits or bread rounds have been cut from the line up entirely. When I went vegan a few years ago, it presented a perfect opportunity to streamline the meal even further. The stuffing lost its sausage and found its way into a baking dish with vegetable stock; green beans and sweet potatoes went unmilked, debuttered; gravy was abandoned entirely until I introduced a dairy-free version.

But there has been little, if any, complaint. We all feel obligated to contribute to and appreciate this holiday as best as we can, though it’s becoming increasingly clear that we don’t want to. My parents both work 60–80 hours a week, are passionate about so many things, talented at so many more — but none of those things is making food.

When I told my father recently about a dinner party I’d thrown, he sighed. “You’re such a rebel.”

Next: The recipe!

This is the first Thanksgiving I won’t be going home to spend with my family in Los Angeles, and so my meal can consist of multiple ingredients, and can even contain spices (I know how to use those now).

Still, this is barely a recipe at all. It is based on my mother’s technique for sweet potatoes, which has grown simpler and simpler over time:

I don’t have a microwave, so this is more complicated by default.

Garam masala is my favorite Indian spice blend — it is “aromatic” and more delicious than pumpkin pie spice blend. If you want to be even less lazy than me, you can make your own.

Complements lentil loaf, Tofurkey, or dead animals. Scales and adapts well — this version serves four to six.

Susie Cagle made the cover for our cookbook!