Sweet Heat Stew
Too Spicy or Not Spicy Enough?
I had never even attempted to make sweet potatoes before. I had eaten them in the dining hall, of course (was there anything that I didn’t eat in the dining hall?), but I had never thought about them as being one of my foods, like peanut butter and oatmeal are. My first idea was baked sweet potatoes, but the recipe threw around the words aluminum foil and a precise amount of water, so I quickly jumped tracks. I Googled around for other recipes. Mashed sweet potatoes, potatoes with bacon, sweet potato casserole — a whole slew of recipe, and not a single one stood out to me. I ended up jumping right off the tracks and onto my own course. If I can’t find something online, I’ll just whip up something of my own design, I thought.
Into the pot flew raw sweet potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, celery, cilantro, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, red pepper flakes, and just a dab of peanut butter. Judge me if you want, but even as I write out those foods and spices my mouth starts to water. Stew was the name I gave to my creation, that great mishmash of red and orange. I turned it on for six hours, left it to slow-cook into weird flavor perfection.
In the meantime, I met up with a friend I don’t see very much. Tyler was supposed to be teaching me how to do a back handspring — a skill that has long eluded me. When we got together on Reed Campus, however, he was working on a photo project for class with another friend in tow. All around UGA and Athens, he was having his friend Stephen take photos of him to be placed into a map of landmarks. I checked the time. Why not? I still had five and a half more hours.
Stephen, Tyler and I wondered around collecting photos of every site that would be found in a tourist’s dream. The Chapel Bell, the statue of Abraham Baldwin, the Founder’s Garden, the Arch. We made our way slowly but deliberately between these landmarks, leisurely chatting on the way, looking the whole time like a pack of fools in our bright red, orange, and blue shirts that glowed near-neon in the sun. Back home, I knew, the pot was bubbling with strange sweet heat stew.
When we made it past the Arch (around and not under), we added to our motley crew one other person I’d never met: Adele, who had just gotten off work at Urban Outfitters. She added edge to our bright assemblage, her deep black shirt and frayed flannel like a blanket around her waist. The walking had worn us down a little, but Zaxby’s fed us until we were happy again. Replenished, we went through a few stores, buying the occasional trifle but mostly stomping around and laughing with each other.
When we added the final member to our group (Cole, who has been my friend since childhood) later that afternoon, the clique got even closer stomping through those lean streets of downtown Athens. Wearing green and brown, he nearly completed the rainbow we had started. We were having such a time of things I didn’t even remember that my Sweet Heat Stew was warming at home for me by then.
Eventually though, the day outside had grown too long, so we sought refuge at my apartment. There, we goofed off for perhaps hours before I finally realized that my concoction had bubbled its way to soft, sweet veggie readiness. I heaped a big bowl full and burnt myself on the first attempt to raise it to my mouth. The heat must have been at least a little sweet though, because after waiting a minute for it to cool down, I raised the spoon to my mouth for another bite. Yes, it was weird, but it was also good. I could almost taste the heat from the cayenne pepper butting up against the tang of the sweet potato. The cilantro was a tiny pop of green and freshness in a pot that was overly devoted to the cultivation of bright, warm reds and oranges. Better than any other flavor or quality about the stew was the thickness. Its warmth wound its way down your throat and into your stomach with the subtle magic of its viscocity. Even while making it I never would have envisioned it turning into something so harmonious.
Adele was hungry by that point, so I offered her some. As she was sitting on the couch, blowing the steam off her raised spoon, I thought that we, too, with our little motley crew were a nice rounded bunch, one that I wouldn’t have stuck together before that day. I felt a sort of harmony among us.
That is, until the spoon finally reached Adele’s mouth, which promptly formed into a straight line. Not a single bend or curve of interest, only a straight line. She said it was alright.
“Could use some salt.”
I told her politely that it was fine, she didn’t have to eat it, but she continued.
I looked around at our small group again. Still flavorful, maybe a little blander than I had first thought. One thing, however, was certain. I had enough salt at that moment for everyone.