Friday, December 30, 2016

Sweet recipe for sweet potatoes

prepared sweet potatoes in a side dish
Easy to make and tasty to eat! This is the adapted recipe.
(If you're here for the recipe and not the blog post, skip right down to the end of the post!)

Recently, I read that some Hastings potato-chip farmers are diversifying into sweet potatoes. The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences article called the tubers a re-emerging crop. I never realized sweet potatoes had vanished from the state's farms. A weevil caused the industry's demise about 30 years ago.

The crop was a standard item during pioneer years. One old history book talks of the famous "Forty to a Hill" sweet potato venture established commercially in Alachua County in 1891. Specifically, in tiny Waldo, which has a population today of about 1,000.

I didn't quite get 40 sweet potatoes out of the one I planted last spring, but it was a healthy harvest. The taters were tender and yummy, and cultivation was minimal. Actually, I was kind of surprised at the result. My husband and I were experimenting when we planted one potato in an old recycling bucket filled with a mix of oak leaves and pine straw. You see the results in the photo of the harvest. We did little except incorporate organic fertilizer into the soil-less mix when planting, and then water during dry spells.

Ease of cultivation helped make the tasty tuber a nutritional staple for pioneer settlers. In a letter to the Florida Agriculturist newspaper in 1892, one poor newcomer to the state bemoaned that "I am so tender that I even don't know how to grow sweet potatoes." He was ashamed to admit it.

photo of hands holding up a harvested bunch of sweet potatoes
We were surprised at the sweet potato harvest.
The editors obliged him with cultivation information. But the advice included a suggestion to add tobacco stems to the soil to provide potash. Wonder how that worked out. Elsewhere in the same issue another reader wrote that sweet potatoes cost 70 to 80 cents a bushel that year.

After our big harvest, we let the tubers cure for a couple of weeks and started to feast on them - plain except for butter added to the cooked potatoes. But who can resist sweeter sweet potatoes during the holidays? For Christmas dinner, I made Orange Sweet Potatoes that were a big hit. The preparation is super simple.

My recipe is adapted from one by a cook named Elsa Wiedemann. Hers is featured in Treasured Recipes, the 1983 cookbook published by the Guild of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach.

The differences from the original recipe is my addition of maple syrup when reheating, and one change in preparation. If you cook the dish the night before, the sauce thickens on its own in the refrigerator overnight. It stays nice and creamy when reheated. (The original recipe calls for the sauce to be boiled down to a thick consistency on the stovetop after the potatoes are cooked and removed.)

If you think about it, either version could easily have been made by a pioneer Florida cook. Except she or he likely would have used cane syrup as the sweetener.

You don't need to wait until a holiday to make this. Enjoy!

4 medium sweet potatoes
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup butter
Dash salt
1/3 cup real maple syrup, or more to taste

Pare the sweet potatoes, slice thickly, and place in saucepan. Add all other ingredients except the maple syrup. Bring to a boil and let simmer until potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool and store in microwaveable container. Chill overnight in refrigerator. Before reheating, stir in the maple syrup. Reheat and serve.

Photo of a printed recipe page from a cookbook
Here's the original recipe if you'd like to try it, too.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The man in 'Ellis' Garden'

Cover of the Songs of the Settlement CD
This double CD of Americana-folk
music is a fundraiser for the Pioneer
Settlement for the Creative Arts.
A song on the new Songs of the Settlement folk-music CD sent me scrambling for one of my old journalism clips. It was a bittersweet journey, well worth taking.

The Americana/folk-music double CD was created by multiple singer-songwriters as a fundraiser for Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts. Regular readers know I'm a fan - and a member - of the living-history museum that resembles an old Florida town. My fiction is set in pioneer Florida, and the Pioneer Settlement showcases that era and way of life.

Disclaimer aside, let's get back to the CD. I bought my copy at the Fall Country Jamboree last month, with full expectation of liking the songs because I like Americana music. What I didn't expect to find was Lauren Heintz's song "Ellis' Garden." It's a beautiful ballad about a man who once tended the large garden at the Settlement with the knowledge and dedication gained from a lifetime of living close to the land. The poetic song captures the essence of that gardener - whose full name was Ellis Price and whom I met and interviewed for a newspaper article in 1993.

Image of newspaper article by Gerri Bauer about gardener Ellis Price
I wrote this article about Ellis Price for
the West Volusia 'New Volusian' section
of the Daytona Beach News-Journal
in 1993. 
The resulting article is pictured here, but I'd like to quote a part that still resonates with me:
"Price spends most of his days plowing, cultivating or harvesting crops from soil that ranges from a sandy loam to the rich muck of a reclaimed lake bottom. He guesses he would tend the garden at night, too, but for the lack of light. But never on Sunday. And, sometimes, not when the fish are biting. 'My buddy says for every day you take off for fishing, the Lord gives you an extra day,' Price said ..."
At the time of our interview, Ellis had been growing produce for 60 years, since he was a child in the 1920s. He had first-hand knowledge of early Florida ways, and applied a blend of old and new approaches to his gardening - using hand tools at the Settlement, but tilling with a tractor at home. He always planted by the moon's phases, just as his father had done.

Old cultivars that rated high on Ellis' list included zipper cream peas and running conch peas. He also grew beans, greens, tomatoes, okra, sugar cane, pickling cucumbers, cotton, and corn. The corn was the hybrid sweet 'Silver Queen,' which I believe was the cultivar of Zellwood fame years ago.

The song "Ellis' Garden" closes by saying the Settlement isn't the same since Ellis is no longer with us. I thank Lauren Heintz for returning him, if only briefly. The artistry of the ballad's three minutes tumbled me back nearly a quarter-century. How well I  remember the bright spring day I and photographer Kelly Jordan met with Ellis Price at the Settlement garden. Time slowed for a few hours. And goes by much too fast today.