Monday I peeled sweet potatoes for dinner. It is, for the record, my second most loathed kitchen task, right after peeling butternut squash. But the other night at the grocery store I scooped them up from a cardboard box wondering whether the squat, rounded ones or the long, slim ones would be less bothersome. I bought both, carrying two pounds of tubers home in the dark after work. I scrubbed them in the sink under cold water, and stood over the trash can, my foot pressed on the pedal that raises the lid and scraped the skins off. I especially hate that part. But the dark brown gave way to the briefest flash of a pale color, and beneath that, orange. Just between skin and flesh, there was that little sliver of something light.
It caught my eye because of Tara Brach, who I’ve been listening to a lot of these days. If you don’t know her and have any curiosity about moving through life with more peace, she’s a gem. In her steady, calming voice, she talks about forgiveness. She talks about presence. She talks about kindness and love, and she talks about it it all so beautifully, that lately, whether I am on my way to work or crossing the street or pretending to climb a mountain while I’m really on the treadmill, I find my eyes wide open with a kind of wonder over something at once so simple, yet so deeply taken for granted, I can hardly believe it’s been hanging around me, right in my midst, all along. And then, embarrassingly, tears usually spring to my eyes, wherever I am. And she tells amazing jokes. So basically, that weepy woman with the headphones laughing to herself? That’s me.
So recently, she talked about trigger and response and the hair’s breadth of a moment we have between the two. And that is why the potatoes so struck me. They were the perfect illustration of such an idea: a pause.
And I needed the reminder. Because before the potatoes, I had been sitting at my desk, hours longer than usual, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. There were 47 things to do but, as usual, I could only do one at a time. One foot slowly in front of the other. But there wasn’t enough time! It was maddening! And this is one of the reasons the time of year that should ostensibly be the most joyful causes meltdowns. We have the same work to accomplish in less time, plus invitations we feel can’t be refused, a host of expectations about what the holidays should be like and look like and feel like and taste like and the need to create all of that perfectly, as if happiness could really be found in a succulent turkey and rich, golden gravy. I love a turkey dinner as much as the next person, but come on.
I think that is why I wanted to peel potatoes on Monday, and why I found myself really wondering about that little unnoticeable pale bit. When my body is one place, my head is usually somewhere else. I am making a grocery list, I am checking my email, I am googling The Watcher in the Woods. I’m never just here. I’m either trying to outrun what I don’t like or busy hoping the next moment brings another one just like the one before. Since Monday, as each unpleasantness has popped up, as they inevitably do––the internet that crashes, the to do list as long as my arm, the unbearably steep incline on the treadmill––I have just tried to stay here. There’s a moment just long enough, barely, to say, “this too.”
Who wouldn’t want to escape unpleasantness and cling to sweetness? That’s natural. But as the stress, joy, and busyness of the holidays roar to life, my practice is to try to be present in what’s here instead of always on to the next thing. This long, slow department store line, this hanging around until the turkey’s done, this mountain of work, this traffic jam, this quiet moment under a dark sky, this cup of coffee, this cold walk. This too, this too, this too.
Would you believe that once the peeling was done, I shredded those potatoes on the little silver box grater set on our wooden cutting board? I knew the food processor would be faster, and kept thinking of hauling it onto the counter so it could tear through those potatoes in a flash. But there was a kind of enjoyment in the slow, rhythmic tedium of that task. One potato, two potato, three potato, four. What had felt like a sliver stretched into an expanse, right here.
Wishing you all an indulgently delicious, cozy, meaningful Thanksgiving filled with gratitude and grace.
Stir-Fried Sweet Potatoes and Beef with Vietnamese Flavors
from The Food Matters Cookbook
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
8 ounces beef chuck, flank, or sirloin steak cut into bite-size pieces
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and grated, about 4 cups
1 cup sliced scallions
1 or 2 fresh hot chiles (like jalapeno or Thai), seeded and chopped, optional
1 tablespoon minced garlic
salt and black pepper
1/4 cup fish sauce
juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, Thai basil, or mint
Put a large skillet over high heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and the beef. Stir immediately, then stir every 20 seconds or so until the meat is no longer pink, just a minute or 2. Transfer the beef to a plate.
Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. When it’s hot, add the sweet potatoes, scallions, chiles if you’re using them, and garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring only occasionally, until the potatoes change color and begin to brown; then stir more frequently until they are tender but not at all mushy 10 to 15 minutes.
Return the beef to the pan along with the fish sauce and lime juice. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is reduced slightly and you’ve scraped up all the bits of meat and vegetable. Toss in the herb and serve over grains.