On Thanksgiving I’ll Be Enjoying Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Potatoes

November 28, 2011

By Allan Stevo

If there’s anything from a Slovak perspective that demonstrates everything wrong about American culture, it is the sweet potato.

Slovaks are generally guilty of not following the Hinlicky Rule when referencing the sweet potato. Many will speak about sweet potatoes negatively, while having never tasted them. Nonetheless, I hear about them regularly enough to warrant this discussion in late November, around the time of the American holiday of Thanksgiving and in line with recent articles on the venerable potato.

In America “they eat too much sugar,” many a Slovak foreign exchange student will point out.  “Even their bread is sweet.”  This was a complaint that I heard regularly enough to want to return to the U.S. and look into this – is there really sugar in our bread?  It became hard for me to find bread that didn’t have a little sugar to sweeten or even a little high fructose corn syrup to sweeten.  After enough time in Slovakia, I even became disgusted by the taste of lots of bread in the U.S.  Bread that I had once found normal, as I had grown up eating it, eventually came to taste sickly sweet.  Whenever I bake cookies while visiting with a Slovak family, 2/3 of the sugar in the recipe usually has to be cut in order for someone in a family to not say to me “this was a good idea, but they are just too sweet.”

Sugar is a Symbol

Our use of sugar can take on a level of metaphor as well.  Bread, after all, is among the most fundamental foods of Slovak survival.  Where potatoes are not present, bread is at least present.  Milan Rufus’s poetry, in his last book Ako Stopy v Snehu (Like Footprints in the Snow) as an example, incorporates the imagery of bread heavily.  Bread is simple, nourishing, filling, and relatively easy to make at home.  Bread, is important in Slovakia, a country with a not too distant memory of poverty and hunger, in a way that it is unrecognized in America.

Nutrition in America is so varied, from so many cultures, and with a long history of plenty, that bread plays a less central role in survival.  In fact, other than going for a annual check up, or a mammogram, or accepting that a colonoscopy while uncomfortable has measureable benefits, not many Americans are all that concerned with survival.   Even this fundamental food for human existence – this product of the nurturing Slovak hearth, even that item is “attacked” in the United States.

On some telephone call this very moment, some poor Slovak foreign exchange student who has gained 12 pounds in America this school year is now telling her mother “They put so much sugar in their bread!”  And her mother’s mouth drops open, and her grandmother across the room overhearing the conversation is shaking her head and saying under her breath “Is nothing sacred in that far off land of America?”

A Touch of Honey

Even homemade Slovak breads often contain a little sugar – maybe a half tablespoon added to a two pound loaf of bread in order to feed the yeast as the bread rises.  Done right, it’s presence is not noticeable in the taste of the bread.  It’s a little different with many types of American bread, however.

Marketers want to convince us to buy, so they add hints of sugar to the bread and call it honey or molasses.  Even breads that aren’t marketed as sweet are often sweeter than a Slovak would expect a savory bread to taste. The bread with a hint of sweetness will taste a little better.  No problem in the U.S.  Why not eat what tastes good rather that what doesn’t taste good.  A little too disgusting in Slovakia however.

Always Looking for the Good Life

Sometimes it’s pointed out to me by a Slovak that “Americans like the good life, the easy life.”  “Well, Duh!!” is my immediate reaction.  Why walk two miles to accomplish a task when you can walk just one mile to accomplish the same task?

I think Americans are often seen as posh and willing to take the easy road.  Our sweet bread is perhaps symbolic of this method of ours.  While in Slovakia the bitter is taken in hearty proportions along with a little sweet, those Americans try to have the sweet in life more than the bitter.

Slovakia is a land where everyone seems to love their horseradish, where raw onions and garlic regularly find their way into a meal.  Our cultures in the year 2011 have a fundamentally different relationship with the sweet and bitter.

The American Smile

Smiling is an example of this.  Numerous times I’ve heard of the “American smile” in Slovakia, defined by being toothy and at least 2 fingers wide.  Americans will smile on the street to a stranger, sometimes even in a fake way, because we want to be polite.  We know that life is a little nicer for everyone when there are a few smiles throughout the day.  Sometimes it’s plain hard to coax a smile out of most Slovaks on the street, and especially in Bratislava.  It’s enough to just hope that you won’t get thrown out of the way by a stout linebacker of a grandma trying to get from point A to point B.  Big toothy grins are not a default gesture in Slovakia the way they are in America. The bitter and the sweet have different relationships in America than they do in Slovakia.

The Sweet Potato

So, of course, it’s time to move on and attack our dear sweet potato.  Our trendy sweet potato.  I promise you next week, that same grandmother will be shaking her head when she learns what they fed her granddaughter on their “day for giving thanks” – “deň vďakyvzdania.”

Trendy!

That sweet potato of theirs seems trendy, not traditional.  America is a little too trendy and not well connected with the importance of tradition.  America asks itself so often “what is cool?” and worries about it so much that it feels unsettled and incomplete as a culture, unable to comprehend the place a person has in a history that stretches back long into the past and will stretch long into the future.  This uneasiness leads to all kinds of problems – one of which is a desire to constantly try to prove superiority in the world.

America ruins what it touches.  There is a love hate relationship with America.  There is the great wealth of America, that everyone loves.  At the same time it makes trouble in the world.  America is so backwards that it even screwed up potatoes by making them sweet.

I think that’s all below the surface when a Slovak mentions how strange the idea of a sweet potato sounds to him or her.

We return in these arguments in some ways to the Marxist critiques of America from communist times.  Communist Czechoslovak critics offered some good insight about the constraints of American culture.  Just like any other place on the planet, America is not a perfect place to live; it too has its flaws.  What those critics did that was so deceitful was to so blow those problems out of proportion.  Furthermore, they behaved as if there were only two ways to do things in the world – the “American way” or the Communist Russian way.  If America had problems, and one didn’t want to be like America, then one must turn to the Russian way.  That dialectic is false however and doesn’t require a large sampling of people to disprove.  If you ask a group of 10 people how a person should live, you end up with at least 10 different answers.

Once, a few years back, I was enjoying a Thanksgiving meal with a group of Americans in Slovakia and my friend, the lunch lady at the school that I used to teach at hollered out at me when I made her a plate and brought it back into the kitchen.  Out of the twelve items on that plate, she focused her sites on that appalling little orange thing I had placed there.  “Nééééééé. Nééééééé, Allan.  Nechcem tie sladké zemaky!”

“Noooo, Allan, nooo!  I don’t want those sweet potatoes.”

In her protest, much could be heard in the connotations.

The Connotations

How could America, come along and ruin one of the greatest gifts of the earth – the potato – by adding sweetener?  What strange aberration of nature was produced by American scientists in some laboratory the day they created sweet potatoes?  Do they even have any normal potatoes in that America, that place where all those good Slovaks disappeared to and were never even heard from again?  As cultures shift, will we one day be forced to eat sweet potatoes?  Will it become impossible to find normal potatoes in Slovakia one day?  Will Americans make US eat sweet potatoes!?!   Will we all be fat?

As I sit down to enjoy those delicious sweet potatoes this Thanksgiving in Bratislava, I know that at least somewhere nearby there will be one Slovak eyeing what I’m eating and wondering what in God’s name is wrong with me – “he seemed like such a good boy.”

Any cross cultural Thanksgiving memories you’d like to share?  Noticeably absent from this piece is mention of the dozens of people who have made my Thanksgiving away from home fantastic, including the lunch lady mentioned above who cooks amazing stuffing and delicious sweet potatoes.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Comments

  • Dear Allan,
    I share your experience from a Korean perspective. We are very proud of our Korean sweet potatoes and yet certain food snobs declare disgust at the very idea of sweet potatoes. I hope that we are able to continue to use food as a way to break down some of the cultural barriers.

  • Yooni,
    Thank you for the additional perspective on this one. Having to deal with a food snob is no fun. Many of the readers of this site who do not live in Slovakia may not realize that many Koreans call Slovakia home, so much so that it is common to run into Koreans at all kinds of functions in Bratislava. Samsung in Galanta (near Bratislava) and Kia near Zilina play notable roles in the Slovak economy.

    It must be difficult for a Korean to move so far from home and to a country like Slovakia, where there is a long history of fresh grown local foods prepared in a local way, but not a very long history of foreign foods. I’ve had both Japanese travelers and Filipinos tell me that rice is necessary to feel like a meal has satisfied the appetite. I bet the same is true for many Koreans. While rice is not hard to come by in Slovakia, bread and potatoes are so much more common. I bet there are lot of things that a Korean misses about his or her distinctive national cuisine when he or she moves to Slovakia.

    Thank you again, Yooni.

    Allan

  • I really like this article, it is so true. Slovaks are very judgemental without knowing the facts, or ever being at the place or trying something. Btw. I do LOVE sweet potato, but even my husband says I am more american than he is :))) Speaking of sweet potato, when I first brought home sweet potato while living in London, my mom’s reaction was exactly the same as many slovaks, because apparently in Slovakia when potatoes turn sweet, they are bad potatoes. But Slovaks don’t recognize different breeds of potatoes. But you can’t really blame them to freak out, if you give them orange potatoes with sugar and nuts and maybe marshmallows and coconut? For any stranger it looks just like a crazy concoction .
    When it comes to bread I must agree, american bread is disgusting and the “healthier” you look the sweeter it goes. The only bread I found, that could slightly resemble slovak bread is jewish rye bread. I think the amount of mollasses and corn syrup in bread has something to do with how long it can sit on the supermarket’s shelves. Every bread in Slovakia is stale after 2-3 days, in america, you can have bread sitting on the shelf for a month and you can still eat it. In fact in only turns green never hard. In Slovakia there are no national bakery chains. Every area has its own bakery, where bread comes from. You don’t buy Bratislava bread in Presov. It’s the same with milk.
    Btw. the most revolting thing my mother found here, was honey baked ham :))) Yeah Allan, tell those slovaks that americans put sugar in ham and meat too :)))))

  • Tatiana,
    Thank you for the lengthy and insightful comment. I want to make sure that I am clear – I do not intend to say that being judgmental is bad – I think it is part of the Slovak survival mechanism that has allowed Slovak culture to continue to exist to the present times, after many other cultures that once inhabited the region have simply dissolved.

    I’d never heard about how a potato that has turned sweet is a bad potato. That makes an aversion to sweet potatoes even more logical to me. Your poor mother. It must have taken her a few days to get over the fact that her daughter, who she thought was well-raised, was now getting mixed up with strange foreign traditions such as sweet potatoes. Adventurous children at once torment their parents and broaden their parents’ horizons!

    To further illustrate your point of how hard it is for Slovaks to find bread that is like bread from home, I’ve heard before, but have never had it confirmed for me that the Slovak government will regularly send Slovak bread in their diplomatic packages to Slovak embassies around the world.

    Thank you Tatiana for the info about sugar and ham. I’ll need to test out reactions to that one.

    Allan

  • jim stasheff

    Nov 28th, 2011

    Just remember to call them YAMS

  • As a Slovak in America, it took me a while to get used to the sweet potato. I had the hardest time but my wife’s legendary culinary skills convinced me sweet potatoes are good. (Slovaci, pocujte, sladke zemiaky, ci bataty, su chutne!) I enjoyed them at this past Thanksgiving feast very much.

    For Slovaks, a potato that’s sweet (and orange instead of yellow) simply does not compute; it is against our very concept of a potato. Which is why, as you point out, Slovaks would say a sweet potato is disgusting. I, too, was of that opinion before I stopped comparing sweet potatoes to my concept of potatoes and instead started taking them for what they are: a delicious (if made well) tuber.

    And don’t even get me started on yams!

  • Peter,
    I love your insightful comment. Thank you. This is great: “For Slovaks, a potato that’s sweet (and orange instead of yellow) simply does not compute…”

    I hope your wife will come across this comment too, because I’m sure she’ll love the public praise for her cooking.
    Allan

  • I must have had a very progressive mother! In the forties, mind you, I was eating delicious sweet potatoes sautéed in butter, brown sugar and a bit of orange zest; cooked by a lady who had only recently been transplanted from Slovakia to Chicago. Although this was before the communists imposed their austerities on the Slovak population. Wonder if they could have had some influence or could Bukovec, SK (her birth place) have been ahead of its time?
    On the other hand her strudel, butter cookies, rozky, kolac, and milosty (sorry, may be misspelled and no diacritic marks) may not have been all that sweet. The sweetness was probably heightened by the fillings or by dusting them liberally with powder sugar. But, who knows, my memory may be out of calibration with my taste buds, it has been many years since I have enjoyed one of her delicacies.
    However, I must agree that American bread is too sweet.

  • Ivan,
    You raise a fantastic question – What is it that promotes assimilation?

    Did your mother start cooking sweet potatoes because she loved them? Did she want to try looking and feeling American? Did she want you to feel American? Did she enjoy adventurous cooking? Did she cook them because others around her enjoyed the way she cooked them? Who knows, maybe she even had experience with sweet potatoes in her Slovak home growing up. There are an uncountable number of answers to this question of what got your mother interested in sweet potatoes and what causes a person to take an interest in their host culture and to what extent. If your mother is still alive, I hope you will ask her why it was that she cooked sweet potatoes for you in the 1940s. The answer is sure to be fascinating. Tatiana, above, offers her own answer to this question – she simply loves sweet potatoes. Thank you for your comment Ivan and thank you especially for raising this question.
    Allan

  • Great discussion — It is perhaps helpful to remember that Sweet Potatoes are not even potatoes, so the name is perhaps partly to blame for the reaction of Slovaks… It seems a little bit like calling apples “potatoes” and giving Slovaks an apple pie to eat… they would be a bit put off.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_potato
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potato
    (Nor are they yams potatoes, although we often mix up the names…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yam_(vegetable) )

    I must admit I have at times been shocked by the Slovak custom of making a full meal out of nothing but flour, butter, potatoes, butter, prune paste, and butter (with butter on top) (AKA pirohi) or big sweet dumplings with sugar and cocoa (and lots of butter) (AKA buhti) or putting KOFOLA in their red wine… !?!? But enough, I shall have to draw out my rebuttal in comics form…

    Thomas C. Mann’s new book “1493” (you can read some of it on Google Books) has some amazing chapters on the effects of potatoes AND “sweet potatoes” in the globalization movement of the past few centuries… especially concerning the migration of potatoes to Europe (and Slovakia) and the orange things to Asia (and China, and Korea). Everywhere they went, these little things totally changed societies, economies, and environments.

    — Marek

  • Marek,
    Awesome comment. Thank you for the suggestion on 1493, and the point about sweet potatoes. Your point is well taken about how other cultures definitely look strange if we can’t step out of our own shoes for a few minutes: “I have at times been shocked by the Slovak custom of making a full meal out of nothing but flour, butter, potatoes, butter, prune paste, and butter (with butter on top) (AKA pirohi)”
    Thanks again.
    Allan

  • Marek,

    Thank you for the link on the issue of Kofola and red wine. I do not have too many friends who drink those two together. I have no doubt that some people really love it though.

    I have heard of Spaniards doing something similar. Calimocho I think they call it – Pepsi and red wine.

    I have also met a lot of people who combine a deciliter of soda or sparkling mineral water with a deciliter of white wine. It all felt like such a sacrilege until I started somehow getting used to it. However, it’s still not something that I order. I’m not that used to it yet.

    Thanks again.
    Allan

  • […] has too much sugar in it. Two weeks ago, in honor of Thanksgiving, I went into this issue further in this piece on sweet potatoes.  American food tastes too sweet to a lot of Slovaks.  And it would probably taste too sweet even […]

  • Thanks Allan —
    I think your cultural comparison pieces are some of my favorites on this site.
    On the topic of sweet food, here is my post about Slovak sugar roses:
    http://marekslovakia.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/sugar-roses/
    — M

  • […] Now, all that was intended as a preface for the next – statement.  Serve a rough cut, heavy, dense loaf of bread with a crispy crust alongside your gulas if you can.  Don’t serve just any bread that you buy in Slovakia and expect it to go well with a pot of gulas, because Slovak bread is not a commodity, despite what some may think.  The mere fact that it is made in Slovakia does not make the bread good.  The mere fact that it does not contain high fructose corn syrup does not make the bread good  ( Slovak visitors to America tend ridicule “sweet” American bread). […]

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