Note from curator Rozanne Gold: Here is a beautiful piece written by Apryl Lee, whose stories have appeared in “Keyhole Press,” “Necessary Fction,” “Word Writer,” and “The Feminist Breeder.” It comes to me by way of her friend, Allison Radecki, who shared her own recipe for her father’s vodka sauce on Handwritten. I love how these stories and connections continue to grow, truly forming an exchange of collective memory and the transmission of taste beyond flavor — my very goal in creating this column. Here, Apryl shares a recipe for her Grandmother’s sweet potato dish with pineapple rings. It captures much; being young at the family table, the passing of time, and the taste memories that span decades. Though the recollections of this dish are vivid, the specific steps to recreate it were not. This lead Apryl to indelibly record it in her own hand on lined paper with blue pen, so that it will not be lost in time anymore. Thank you, Apryl Lee, and blessings to your Grandmother.
Sweet Potatoes with Pineapple by Apryl Lee
There are ten pineapple rings. Only eight fit in your lasagne pan. After you scoop on the sweet potatoes, sprinkle the topping and dot with a maraschino cherry, you're left with two pineapples and a cup of juice. Both the spare pineapples and juice should be put aside, covered with plastic wrap and offered to a grandchild when they are sad.
Did it used to have marshmallows, too? My grandmother's sweet potato dish was not the cornerstone of holiday meals. I don't remember it being a delicacy we kids eagerly awaited as we sat wearing sagging white tights and button-up shirts, legs dangling from tall chairs around our holiday table. The grown-ups, all swirling mugs of punch — the kind where islands of sherbet disappeared into a sea of Seven-Up and cranberry — never applauded as it entered the dining room on a golden tray, as if in some Rockwell painting. But everyone ate one. Just one, or half of one if you were small, since there were only eight and at our core family's capacity, before people left and people joined, we were ten large. And we liked them.
Over the last dozen holidays, my grandmother has taught me and my mom how to prepare them, instructing us as she did the work. But she's ninety now, and this Thanksgiving, we were mostly on our own as she sat on my mother's kitchen chair fenced in by her newly-acquired walker. I let her guide, though I knew it by heart. I sat beside her so we could do it together. Still trying to coordinate her arms and fingers after her stroke, she could manage to scoop only a few, uneven spoonfuls of sweet potatoes onto the pineapple rings. She moved slowly, pushing the orange mush off the spoon with her finger. When the time came to crush the cereal topping, she reminded us the best way was to pour it into a Ziplock and step on it. This became the job of my four-year-old, her great-grandson, who danced and leaped atop a baggie full of Oatmeal Crisp. We did not add cherries this year, even though that's my mom's favorite part.
In learning this, we've ensured that there will never be an empty space left by the sweet potatoes, like the empty space left by my grandfather's Waldorf salad. (We tried to reproduce it the Thanksgiving after he died, but he had only died a week prior, and there was no recipe and sadness is not an ingredient one should cook with. Besides, no one can slice apples that tiny.) It's committed to memory but one day, that sadness will overcome us again and what will memory serve? Will we remember the cherries or the cereal? These are the things that are important.
Today, I called her. When she answers the phone now, she sounds semi-absent, slurring, disconnected, but once she gets going, her jaw loosens, her mind catches up. I asked her if she could remember how to make the sweet potatoes. She snapped: "Of course, I do!"
I wrote the recipe exactly as she told me. It's captured in ink on paper, a record of holidays, of seeing my grandparents' car pull into the driveway, of a full table with family and sweet potatoes with cherries, a record of her voice, her peculiar nature. I can make it from memory and for now, this recipe is preserved, put aside, ready to be offered when we are sad along with two pineapple slices and a cup of juice. It has never actually had marshmallows, but she said I could add them.
That would probably taste real good.
Apryl Lee is the co-founder and co-creator of Halfway There: An Author’s Reading Series in Montclair, New Jersey, and teaches screenwriting at Seton Hall University.