Care Enough to Eat the Very Best

It’s New Year’s Day. I’m tired. I feel like I am still digesting everything I have eaten over the past week. So I do what I always do in this situation: I decide to bake a sweet potato.

In Los Angeles, I always have a few sweet potatoes rolling around in the refrigerator drawer for occasions just like this—I pick a few up whenever I’m at the farmers market or when I stop by the Chinos. I get all different kinds and I like them all: the yellow ones that taste like chestnuts, the orange ones that people like to call yams (even though they’re not), and the Japanese purple sweet potatoes that can tend to be kind of dry but are entirely worth it because they are purple!

Here in my New York apartment, I have nothing but a half pint of half-and-half, a can of Illy coffee, and two cans of tuna, so I lowered the standards that make shopping for me such a royal pain and bought a single sweet potato from the regular ol grocery store around the corner. I came and home baked the potato, slathered it with butter and salt, sat down in front of CNN, and… nothing. I mean in terms of flavor. More butter. Still nothing. More salt. Nada.

When people like me talk about eating seasonally, eating local, eating foods grown in such a way that they taste like the thing they claim to be, the example you hear seem to always be those things grown in the summer. Mostly you hear about tomatoes. You hear about corn a lot too. And you hear people wax nostalgic about the Georgia peaches they remember from childhood or green beans that taste like green beans.

But you rarely hear people talk about winter vegetables: a head of cauliflower that has all the virtuous flavor of a head of cauliflower fresh from the farm after the first fall frost, potatoes that make you remember that potatoes have a flavor other than what is on them, and I even sometimes wonder if, when it comes to winter vegetables, where it comes from makes much of a difference in terms of flavor, or if I am just buying from the farm for all the other reasons it’s important to buy from the farm. But that was before tonight.

I couldn’t have imagined a sweet potato tasting so astonishingly unlike a sweet potato—in fact so astonishingly unlike anything. Although it looked like a sweet potato (if it quacks like a sweet potato…), when I cut into it, the inside it was stringy and watery, an almost transparent orange sweet potato color. It had just the faintest of sweet potato flavor, as if it had been assigned a certain amount of flavor and then grown to three times that size, it still had only that much flavor.

I’m not entirely proud of this fact and maybe I should resolve to take my potatoes less seriously, but it made me kind of angry. If I eat a sweet potato, I want it to taste like a sweet potato. Is that too much to ask? I felt ripped off—not of the money, but of a meal that fell so sadly short. But ripped off by whom? Somehow, somewhere, I feel there is a sweet potato farmer out there who is yanking my chain. Or who just doesn’t care about what he is doing even though that something goes into my body by means of my mouth. New Year’s Resolution number 270: Pay close attention to what I put into my mouth. Eat food grown by people who care.

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