In the age the shogunate and his line has set like a stone palisade in Edo. The names of skirmishes and massacres want to be forgotten. Insults and honors and lives lost. Pens need to rest, neither recording nor adding. In the time the narrow roads have grown and in this passage you have walked. Sometimes you find yourself alone on it. A 1,200 mile road in total but at this junction between whichever outpost between whichever town or city or defile or mountain passage or passages in between you are tired. Horse is gone. A friend, truly. Let's not speak of him any more. It is only your legs now. The onigiri is gone.
The last of the umeboshi filled your mouth with each small slow bite. Lick the fingers and watch the sun behind the hills. Breathless, and here you are now, onigiri-less, waterless, and if the sun stays too long gone and the night picks up and the wind along to carry it it might be cold and colder in the dark and the night will be filled sleepless.
Basho wrote: Tired of cherry, tired of this whole world, I sit facing muddy sake, and black rice. You have none one of these things. You have something else, a damp fallen log shared by ants and beetles.
Stars are bright through the cover of the leafless branches. Through the other there's a closer twinkle, a faint orange like a glowing insect floating your way. Is this your cousin, lightning bug? Likely not. It moves like a man. Slow and plodding. Afraid of the dark. Brigands and salvation both carry light. Better not chance it. You take cover in the brush with the bugs. And wait. And wait.
The tiny ring of a bell rises on the wind like a temple in the distance. It’s not roving bandits. Just a man alone, perhaps lonely as you this night, tugging his dirty cart along, the brassy halo of orange and rings attending. Something else. Smells. Fire. Char. Sweetness. Flowers. Hunger. It is sweet but it is not mochi nor cakes. It smells hardy and enjoys the travel of hard roads.
You smile. Potato. The song of the potato. The grilled potato man. The yaki-imo song. Frugal nobles and privileged peasants alike know the skin like that of royal linen, somewhere between the purple of sky and the brown of earth, and inside, a flesh like gold baked soft, an aroma carrying song all the way from the province of Satsuma. Mountains. Hills. Plains. Farms. Ocean. History. Mother used to puree it, shape it, bake it. Uncle fermented it, distilled it with frigid mountain waters, poured it into a white ceramic cup, the cycle of a pristine mountain spirit. All a bit much work out here, but fortunately, the best way to have Yakiimo or Ishi Yakiimo, was the simplest. Leave it to smoke in the coals. Let it reach that perfect temperature, piping, where the richness of the starches begin to melt but not lose its wholesomeness. It’s so good one need only break it in half, watch the constant puff of steam rise. No salt, sugar. Just bite into the core of goodness. A pain, so tender, so good.
You leap out from the darkness out from the brush.
The old man screams. His straw hat given to the wind. Watch him watch it fly. “Dear heavens, what’re tryin’ ta do? Kill me with fright?” Maybe he's really sore about losing the hat.
You bow repeatedly, apologize meekly for your eager hunger and nostalgia, brushing off the skittering ants up and down your legs. He calms down eventually, after lecturing you on brigands and other troublesome things that creep in the night. You wonder at his own strangeness, of grilling potatoes in the dark, alone upon an empty road, but you try not to offend him. He is kindred, after all. A man enamored by a root. Then the moment comes and you hope his trove of potatoes are still gooey and steaming on the inside. You take a look.
The heavy black lid of the iron pot uncovers. Inside, a heap of potatoes soundly among glowing embers. You spot the one with critical eyes in the faintness. The one in the center, on top, an area not too hot, not too cool. You pluck it from the pile.
You juggle it back and forth until it becomes bearable to the touch. The old man gives you a strange look, as if a child who needed the lesson of fire. Then you realize why his quaint stare. You dig into your near empty pouch and fetch another coin. In the faint brassy lamp light, his crumpled face transforms into a warm smile.
“You need a ride?” he says, biting, then pocketing the coin.
You smile back. Maybe it's the potato. Maybe it's the driver and rider. Maybe it's the night. Maybe the narrow road. Maybe it's the next town on the map though who knows where you are now but who cares, maybe it's just the ride.
Story by HVH
Recipe of the Day - Sweet Potato Cookies
Ingredients (makes about 2 dozens):
2 large Satsuma sweet potatoes
2 tsp butter
2 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp heavy cream
1 egg yolk
2 tsp honey
6 Tbsp milk
Preheat the oven to 350F. Line baking sheets with parchment papers.
Wash Satsuma sweet potatoes and wrap each with plastic wrap. Microwave them for 7-8 minutes (alternatively, you can bake them in the oven just like baking regular potatoes.)
Peel the skin while the potatoes are still hot. Mash them in a large bowl until very smooth. Add butter and sugar and mix well. Add heavy cream and egg yolk and mix well. Add honey and milk and mix well.
Fit a pastry bag with #22 tip. Fill the pastry bag with the potato mixture. Pipe about 2” disk or however shape you prefer, leaving 2-3” in between cookies. Once the pan is filled with cookies, bake at 350F for about 15 minutes or until they turn golden brown.
Let them cool slightly on a cooling rack. Serve while they are still warm. You can let them cool completely and reheat them again just before serving.