Eating. sweet potatoes. (fries).
Usually I only have sweet potatoes (or yams) at Thanksgiving, or at Christmas, baked until the skins droop and the flesh softens, eaten as is or mashed into a creamy mass with a little butter, drizzled with honey or topped with marshmallows and baked until its white surface caramelizes in the heat. Or perhaps made into a pie, a golden crust filled with a dense cloud of burnt-orange sweetness. (I can't remember the last time I had a sweet-potato pie; it makes me thing of Southern novels about people sitting on their back porch drinking sweet iced tea while talking about their past, of fried-chicken dinners with all the fixings, and like English afternoon teas with scones and clotted cream it is like a dream of a life I don't have). But my favorite diner has sweet potato fries on the menu, and at dinner I order some along with my burger.
It feels a little strange to come here, to this neighborhood not far from where I used to live. Actually I rarely ate here when I lived nearby, at this bright and cheerful diner with its large windows and minimalist plywood chairs and its local regulars who are greeted like old friends when they come in. (It opened not too long before I moved; it belongs to the new generation of people who live here). Now I come here after scooping up an armload of books at the used bookstore a few doors away, sometimes after a day of work, sometimes after a day of lazing around. Sometimes I come early in the morning for bread and croissants and pastries at the bakery across the street, or go to the pizzeria a block away for lunch. Other times we go to the Caribbean-Creole place around the corner for jerk chicken and macaroni pie. But I want a cheeseburger, so I find myself on one of those minimalist plywood chairs with the slender metal legs that look like butterflies hovering above the tiled floor, at a table by the window. (When I walked past a little while earlier, a little baby was standing on a table by the window, smiling as though she was so happy to see me, I had to smile back).
I curl up with my bag of books, flipping through today's haul, thinking about what I should read as I wait for my dinner. I ask for a lemon soda, a cheeseburger with cheddar, sweet potato fries instead of the usual French fries. A vanilla cream soda arrives instead of the lemon, leading me to wonder whether my hamburger will be medium-rare instead of medium, with blue cheese instead of cheddar, no onions, and regular fries. To my relief, what arrives is what I ordered, perfect. I look at the cheeseburger slathered with caramelized onions, the bun spread with mayonnaise, layered with fresh lettuce and tomato, and think of an old Gourmet article where the author, who had grown up in some posh New York City hotel (where his father was manager), had written that hamburgers with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and onion used to be called California-style hamburgers. I wonder when that changed. And then I start eating my sweet potato fries, salty-sweet, crisp and tender all at once, and forget about everything else.