Saturday, March 17, 2007

Clamming in Canada and Sleuthing Sweet Potato Pie

Jill is pulling together the final details of her American Feast in Canada, which requires a snowy trek in search of shell fish. She writes:

The storm has made its way north to Ottawa, with what's hopefully the last gasp of winter. As the snow continues to swirl, I counteract the frosty scene with comforting thoughts of southern sweet potato pie. But before turning to pie, I venture out to pick up groceries for the American feast, including the 8 pounds of clams the recipe I've chosen calls for. In looking at recipes, I've been a bit overwhelmed by the different types of clams. My choice is made easy: there isn’t any. The only clams I can find in Ottawa are littleneck. Most recipes call for cherrystone or quahog, but the smaller littlenecks should be fine. The man behind the counter at the fish store looks at me skeptically and asks several times if I really want 8 pounds, but reluctantly hands them over. I ask where the clams are from, and am told "East coast". I don't inquire any further, so I can maintain the belief that the clams hail from the American East, for a truly authentic New England clam chowder.

Back at home, I steam the clams, producing a briny, faintly herbal broth. The recipe I've selected is simple: salt pork, onions, garlic, celery, bay leaf and thyme, potatoes, cream, and the clams and their broth. In surprisingly little time (with a few interruptions to prevent my cat from devouring the clams), I have a creamy soup, with salty ocean-clam flavours accented by the thyme. Topped off with crunchy bits of salt pork, it's delicious. Perhaps a little thinner than I'd expected, but I'll see how it comes together overnight.

With that completed, I turn to sweet potato pie, a classic southern dish. I refer back to the questions you posed when we first began this project: how did the dish emerge, why were the ingredients important, and how were they characteristic of the region? Well, this dish is a wonderful combination of the old and new worlds, blending the pie-making traditions of Europe with sweet potatoes, a plant indigenous to the Americas. Sweet potatoes were introduced to Europe in the 16th century and there is some evidence they may have been included in pies there in the 1600s. Henry VIII, for example, is said to have eaten sweet potatoes in heavily spiced and sugared pies.

However, there's no doubt about the close association of sweet potatoes with the American south, and particularly, with African-American cuisine. Sweet potatoes have been cultivated in the southern states since the 16th century. Most sources suggest that they became an essential part of the cooking of African slaves in the south due to the sweet potato's similarity to the yam, which was native to Africa. (Sweet potatoes are often called yams, creating confusion, but the two are different vegetables). Many southern sweet potato recipes developed from traditional African cuisine and today, sweet potato pie is considered a cornerstone of African-American soul food.

Sweet potato pie recipes are legion. Most share common features of cooked, mashed sweet potatoes, milk (or cream or evaporated milk), eggs, and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Some are sweetened with white sugar and others with brown sugar or maple syrup. In the early 1900s, marshmallows became trendy, and sweet potato pies were not spared this adornment (nor were other sweet potato dishes, thinking of mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows). Some pie recipes include a pecan or a meringue topping. I also found (shudder) some low-cal versions.

I decide on a recipe in the New York Times Dessert Cookbook, from the Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, mostly because I can't resist an ingredient list that include both bourbon and maple syrup, but it also seems fitting since I once lived in Durham. Now to see if the recipes tastes as good as it reads.

Meanwhile, back in the states, my Canadian Butter Tarts manage to survive a near kitchen disaster and after sampling one I can confirm they are more than edible. The cross continental culinary feast is straight ahead!

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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