Sweet Potato Roast with Lemon, Pomegranate, Feta, and Herbs
My relationship with religion is complicated because it’s so simple. I have none. My mother is “Catholic”; my father is “Muslim.” Both believe in god. They both prey to him nightly for my health and well being, though they likely do it in two different languages. They don’t do anything else for him/her/it, so I’m not sure he/she/it will answer. I don’t think I believe in god, but I keep myself in the agnostic category, because I can’t know everything. I can know, however, that I believe in science and that people are picking up guns to maim on the regular. My mother doesn’t seem bothered by my disbelief; my father does, but it’s fine.
My parents come from a generation when it was common to self-identify as the faith you were born into, so just as my mother is French-Canadian, she is Catholic; just as my father is Iranian, he is Muslim. My maternal grandparents are staunch Catholics; they haven’t been to church in 30 years. Still, they probably resent that I wasn’t stripped and dunked in water by an old dude in front of an audience, though I suppose I could do that any night of the week if I choose to. I respect the practice, but it certainly doesn’t feel right to do it for the sake of doing it.
My distance from faith doesn’t bother me—it’s a choice, after all—but I feel its impact most during the holidays. I’d long stopped celebrating Easter or visiting my folks for it. It’s a deeply religious holiday, and if you take the resurrection story out of it, I suppose, you can celebrate the coming of a hyperbolically large, buck-toothed bunnyman, which is frightening to think about if it weren’t for the chocolate. [ed note: One Easter during childhood I made a giant Easter bunny head sugar cookie in a mold and decorated it with eyes and whiskers. And then we broke it into pieces and ATE IT. Think about that.]
And so I always feel a little disingenuous at Christmastime, because I do celebrate the holiday. I enjoy the pageantry to a certain extent: Once the lights come down and the music is cut, winter is dark and silent. I enjoy seeing family. I enjoy the foods. I enjoy getting a couple days rest. But I do not enjoy giant nativity scenes or church services, and isn’t that really what this is all about? Am I disrespecting an important holiday in the Christian faith by cherry-picking my celebration of it?
When I was young, I sang in multiple choirs. Whether through the school, performing arts centers, or my vocal lessons, the music was often influenced by Christian faith as so much classical music is. Each of the out-of-school ensembles performed in churches and even in college, we held our concerts in the university chapel. I loved singing Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah for their composition, their beauty, their harmonies, the dramatic instrumentals; they were challenging and impressive. These masterworks had feeling, but I didn’t give a lot of thought to why they had feeling. In high school, my choir at the Worcester Performing Arts School sang in the Boar’s Head Festival at a large, ornate church. Our wassailing was intricately choreographed, and I had trouble following direction: I didn’t know the chancel, from the altar, from the crossing, and I couldn’t memorize our processing—funny, since I was a dancer. I wore an elaborate dress and a long robe, and I felt that if there was a heaven, I was earning a few points for entry, my pitch-perfect (right…) mezzo-soprano taking the place of confession.
Outside of performances, I’d only been in churches a handful of times for weddings, until my senior year of college, when I had one nagging requirement to bang out and I chose a comparative religion course. The class was fascinating and the professor top-notch. We had to pick a faith other than our own (easy for me) and write a paper on our experience at a service. I actually enjoy learning about others’ faiths despite not having one, so I came out of the class a more compassionate human, I think.
To fulfill my assignment, I went to a United Methodist church in Worcester while I was home on a break, because the Methodists seemed like they would be nice people. Arminianism is pretty cool. I remember being overcome with a fit of anxiety before attending the service. Churches make me irrationally nervous; being around folks who are worshipping makes me uncomfortable. To avoid getting hives, I took my father along. He jumped at the chance.
But this ended up being different for some reason. Once the service started, I was at ease here. The vast church was still lined with hard-ass pews that were cold from the winter draft. There were booklets that were meant to be picked up and read and I didn’t know when to do so. And sometimes you needed to stand and sing with the choir. But it was different.
The folks weren’t obnoxiously warm and familial. There were obvious bonds, but people didn’t congregate together. The crowd was diverse and the minister a woman. The service was beautiful but not overly formal (and fairly liberal). It felt friendly and not preachy. The minister spoke less of scripture and more of service. She talked about their Ghanaian choir and their women’s group for the new members of the audience. She also told the tales of those back from their mission trips and their experiences. And while I still felt empty while folks dropped their heads and prayed, I felt warm instead of cold.
When we left, my father hugged me and said, this is why you must believe in god. I shrugged him off, but I at least saw his point. I appreciated these people. I’m not sure they were any better than me—I am a good person, dammit. But I kind of got it. I got the community. I got the routine. I got the warmth that my dad was obviously feeling. And I certainly got needing something to pull you through the drudgery of life. I remember that visit every year when I celebrate Christmas. I remember what Christmas can mean to real Christians.
I’m a cultural mutt. Sometimes I revel in my own—French-Canadian and Persian is a cool mix; sometimes I prefer others’ and enjoy them without appropriating. And sometimes I abstain from cultural traditions that I don’t buy, like with religion. And I suppose there’s no reason why my Christmas celebrating can’t reflect that. I can enjoy the light, even if I don’t believe in the power that ignites it, right?
My food is typically an amalgamation of different cultures’ dishes as well. In the past I’ve thought I cook that way because I love the diverse. While that’s true, I think some of it is because I don’t really define my place in a global context and feel a bit uneasy about it, too. Much like holidays, I wonder sometimes if my dishes bastardize cultures’ food too much, as I try to bring flavors together in interesting ways. But if I’m not celebrating Chirstmas in a traditional manner, my food doesn’t need to be traditional. A little Christmas-classic with the sweet potatoes, a little Mediterranean with the lemon roasting, and a little Middle Eastern with the pomegranate, this dish is as confused as I am. But it tastes damn good—simultaneously sweet, earthy, herbaceous, spicy, bitter, and sour. It’s my feelings towards Christmas and religion in a skillet: It’s got the light but not the tradition. It’s fun.
Whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Atheist, I am one of you, because I am none of you. Thank you for letting me celebrate your traditions. It keeps me warm.
Lemony Sweet Potato Roast with Pomegranate, Feta, and Herbs
Serves 4 to 6
If you don’t want to buy Aleppo pepper, just season with pepper along with the salt. The bottom of the potatoes get nicely crispy and the sugars that run beneath them caramelize deeply. You may want to check the bottoms during uncovered roasting with a thin metal spatula to make sure they’re not burning.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing pan
2½ pounds sweet potatoes, unpeeled, ends trimmed, sliced about 3/8 inch thick
2 cloves garlic, cut into slivers
1½ tablespoons lemon juice, plus extra for seasoning
4 sprigs thyme
2½ ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
Seeds from ½ pomegranate
¼ cup roughly chopped parsley
1. Adjust oven rack to middle rack and heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease bottom and sides of 12-inch cast-iron skillet with oil. Toss sweet potatoes, garlic, oil, salt, and Aleppo, together in large bowl. Transfer sweet potatoes to skillet, overlapping in concentric circles. Stick garlic slivers in between potatoes. Add lemon juice to any oil left in bowl from potatoes and mix together. Pour lemon mixture over potatoes. Top potatoes with thyme sprigs. Cover skillet with aluminum foil (or a cover if it comes with one) and bake until potatoes are mostly tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
2. Increase oven temperature to 450. Uncover potatoes and roast until they begin to caramelize, about 20 minutes. (Drizzle potatoes with a little olive oil if they look dry during uncovered roasting.) Discard thyme sprigs and spritz potatoes with lemon juice to taste. Top potatoes in skillet with feta. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and parsley and serve immediately.