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Act 5, Scene 1: Irene's Twilight Zone

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Part of being an author is being able to write about a particular place, having the ability to transport the reader where you desire. Today I want to write about the humble white sweet potato, a western North Carolina delicacy. 

Once frost coats the punkin' and Thanksgiving is behind me, I enjoy sweet potato chips for breakfast every morning. In fact, this blog post was very difficult for me to write. I am in a hurry for breakfast, impatient as I sprinkle cinnamon sugar and snap photos. But I wanted to share this delicious treat with you, my readers. Sweet potato chips can't be beat. I'm not talking about chips made from yams. No sir. Chips (and fries) made from yams are almost always soggy. Shudder.

I am talking about the rural western North Carolina delicacy, the white sweet potato. My folk bake sweet "taters" in the oven, peel them, and serve with a hunk of butter mashed in real good. Back in the day, most western North Carolina folk survived on sweet potatoes, packed them in their lunch pail, ate them with molasses when available. Modern day baking potatoes were unheard of, but a garden simply wasn't complete without a sweet potato patch planted thick with vines that snaked clear across the rows. Folk kept the vines nipped back, believed that the shorter the vine the bigger the tater growing underground.

In Georgia, folk grow yams, a cousin (distant cousin) to the sweet potato. Yams grow fat and sassy in the Georgia clay. When I learned that my 82 year old Georgia friend, Billy Albertson, had never tried a white sweet potato-found out that he was a yam man- I was on a one-woman mission to remedy that situation. My dad's been growing white sweet taters for years. He gets his "slips," which are the sprouts necessary to grow the potato, from a local boy who lives in the community where Dad grew up. Are they organic and not genetically modified? You bet your life they are.

At this point those who have tasted a white sweet potato long for the days when they were common, available at every market. Alas, those days are gone. Replaced with acorn squash, and other more popular items.

After introducing Billy Albertson to the white sweet potato, he also fell in love with the tender fleshy meat. So in 2011 he began growing white sweet taters in Georgia, but had a dickens of a time convincing red clay folk to give them a try. They preferred yams. Now don't get me wrong, yams (or sweet potatoes) have a place. Yes sir. mash them up real good, add some cinnamon, sprinkle with a buttery pecan topping and you've got the most delicious dish to grace the Thanksgiving table.

At least that's my opinion.

Yams are stringy, strong in flavor and should be in a different category when compared to western North Carolina white sweet potatoes.nov2013 163

Now if you'll notice in this picture Dad's white sweet potatoes have a thick dark skin with ridges on the outside.  That scared the red clay folk who were used to thin skinned, orange yams. Billy says the skin is thick on account of the soil, says the dirt is rich because of all that mountain organic matter dad adds (every single year). Billy says red clay grows a thinner skinned potato, and the hotter temperatures make a difference too. Another item of note is the size. White sweet potatoes are small, sometimes growing only as large as your finger. Hence the fancy name "fingerling potatoes." Those are my favorite for baking. Larger ones are sliced for chips.

When slicing a sweet potato it is best to submerge the coin-shaped-slivers in water, or immediately begin the cooking process. As you see, with the potato on the left, they discolor speedy-quick. But don't worry, discoloration does not alter the flavor. In fact, I am always worried about a potato that doesn't darken when sliced. Makes me worry that someone has been tinkering in the gene pool, if you know what I mean.For those who would like to try their hand at making the chips, here is the recipe and a few more photos to guide you through the process:

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * *  *  *  *  *

Ingredients:

2 white sweet potatoes

1 Tablespoon butter (more if potatoes are large)

1-2 Tablespoons Cinnamon Sugar

The Baking Process:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil.nov2013 167

Dot sheet with butter and place in oven so butter will melt.

Slice potatoes and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.

Arrange potato slices on sheet so that they are not touching. Place in oven.

nov2013 172
Notice the shiny potato in this picture? That means it has not baked enough. Give it another 5 to 7 minutes.

Bake 20 minutes, or until slices are no longer soggy. Note baking time depends on how thick you slice potatoes. It may be necessary to remove thinner potatoes early. And yes, it is perfectly acceptable to eat those immediately. Life is short. Why wait?

Remove from oven, place on paper towel which will absorb excess butter.

nov2013 174

Have you ever tried a white sweet potato? Please feel free to send me your favorite recipe.

Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of Mountain Memories; True Stories and Half-Truths from Appalachia. Please download her e-book short story collection today. Her first book, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes earned her a SIBA and GAYA nomination. If you liked this recipe stay tuned. In 2014, Mercer University Press will release her next book titled Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches. Email her through her website at www.reneawinchester.com

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