Monday, December 17, 2007

Post Picking: onto Peelin'! Sweet Potatoes are Still SWEET!

I was trying to wait until I snatched some of Alex's pics from this day to post about it, but I haven't gotten over there to grab any and I think he must be lazier than I with his photo blog cuz they're a no show. Anyway, I wanted to get it down before visions of sugar plums (or white sandy beaches) fill my head and I forget about it all after the holiday.
Okay, so, over a month ago I was fortunate enough to harvest sweet potatoes with Tomomi and her in-laws at their farm. It was a blast (see previous blog), and I learned a lot about the harvesting process. They told us that in a month, they'd peel the potatoes. I never was particularly excited to peel potatoes for dinner at home or anything, but for whatever reason, I had a deep desire to peel me some potatoes! So, I pretty much hounded Tomomi about when they were doing it and offered repeatedly to help. I was super interested in how it worked and absolutely adored the family the last time we were there. I think Tomomi thought we were crazy for wanting to work on Saturday, but it was far from work to me, and I was happy she obliged/gave in.
We got to their house and saw the overhang that used to have crates and crates full of potatoes drying in them to having trays and trays of peeled potatoes in them. They looked and smelled way different. Tomomi explained that the darker ones had been out drying longer, and/or Yoshii's father had peeled them and not done the best job;)

Close up of a dried sweet potato. The dry, cold winds in Gunma work especially well for this process of drying, and after they potatoes have dried, they have a totally different taste and texture. They then get packaged and sold around the area - but I was cool enough to get the product before it hit the market - that's right!

We started learning about the process and our jobs, but not before Syooma got his job for the day: to look ADORABLE!!! Mission complete. (I think he's a Wisconsin boy at heart).
With the big sheets of saran wrap around us, and gloves on, we're ready to go! Alex was for the sure the prize geijin (foreigner) for the day, peeling nearly 3 times as many potatoes as me (and that was with photo breaks and all).
Me, "hard at work". I think I got the least potatoes peeled out of anyone... I'm blaming it on the fact that I was too busy socializing and intercultural-izing; not my poor culinary speed skills.
To my left is the master, my potato peeling sensei, Noriko. Despite her getting the short end of the stick with me as her student, she was amazingly genki all day. She explained the process to me great, even though we don't speak the same language, and would jump over to kindly show me an easier or more effective way or doing something if she saw me struggling. SOOO KIND!

My 'lil station before we take a break. For lack of a better word, I refer to the potato scrappings as "excrements"... not quite the word I was looking for. Check out the video below to get a scan of the whole working area.

I don't know how it happened, but at 10am, 1pm, 3pm, and 5pm SHARP, all of sudden there was a table and food and tea and coffee set up for a snack or meal. Seriously, I'd be peeling away, peeling away, and the next thing I know everyone's moved their crates and are over at a table, smiling and patiently waiting for me to come over. It was amazing, and everything was delicious! I LOVE trying new foods, and this is for SURE the best way to do it.
Our morning snack had tea and coffee (so me, not liking/despising both, had to be the idiot that asked for water), fresh oranges, sugared uze (like a lemon), dried persimmons, dried peaches, pickled cabbagae and daikon, and an assortment of bite sized cakes and candies. The Kobayashi's and their neighbors grow and prepare all the fruit and vegetable dishes themselves and each have their own recipes. They were all oishii (delicious) to me!

After we peeled the potatoes and soak them in water, they get stacked and steamed. Yoshii's mom, Sakae, would then bring them out to the truck. I agree with Tomomi that this is the best way to eat the potatoes - mmmm, squishy!

Touring and tasting the dried sweet potatoes. At least the cold, and I mean cold, and bitter, and brutal! - wind is good for something.

Alex and Laurel's sensei, Mitsuko, my sensei Noriko, and me, after a "hard day's work". I really did have a blast, but my hand was definitely cramping and my lower back a little tight by the end of the day. These ladies peel every day, from 8-5pm (with the little breaks) for a month straight! Every season has it's crop and the responsibilities of harvesting and preparing it. Mrs. Kobayashi commented that all summer she's looking up (picking grapes) and all winter she's bending over (for potatoes). I don't know how they do it, but I'm glad they do and grateful they allowed me to experience a piece of their life. I learned so much from them - they're all so interesting and inspiring! Hopefully they learned a little from me too:) A HUGE thanks to Tomomi for being the translator all day:) She's amazing!
Fresh out of the steamer, Sakae is still working past the imaginary 5 o'clock bell (check out the video below to get some live action of this and the BBQ).

After a quick sweep and some rearranging, the workroom became a communal dining room where we all gathered to enjoy an awesome dinner - Japanese BBQ. It was really interesting to see everyone interacting and felt like any good cookout with smiles, banter, and great food all around. The round of beers didn't hurt either.
The atmosphere was the same, but we did come up with some differences: 1)Types of food (America = namely a big chunk of meat, maybe some corn or potatoes Japan = lots of smaller chunks of meat and lots of veggies ) 2)Types of marinade (America = anything from thick southern A1 steak sauce to Italian or lemon marinade) 3)Types of grill (America = gas and charcoal, Japan = some kind of coal, but definitely not like ours) 4)Utensils (chopsticks instead of forks, knives, spoons, and spatula and flipper for the cook) 5)No "grill master" here - everyone flips whatever's in front of them.
I was mesmerized and loving it.

Steamy potatoes and BBQ!

I'd go back and peel again in a heartbeat! What harvest is next, ladies? Count me in!

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