Jonathan Franzen’s "Freedom" & Spiced Sweet Potato Fries
Sometimes Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom brought Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to my mind. Both are epic tales of unhappy families — each “unhappy in its own way” — that feature an adulterous mother who struggles to love the good man she married while maintaining a relationship with her children. Both authors use the struggles of a single family as a window onto the societies that shape them and each author’s commentary spurs debate. However, the similarities between the two books don’t go much further, as Franzen’s Patty Berglund is tormented not by societal restrictions but rather by a wealth of freedom.
I can see why some people disliked this book; a long novel about a suburban American family will always be damned by those who consider there to be more pressing topics to write about. But if you’ve ever been told that you could become anything you wanted and found yourself unable to think of a single way forward, then you know how cumbersome and isolating freedom can be. It may be a distinctly first-world crisis, but it is a crisis nonetheless. I liked that Franzen’s prose doesn’t attempt to elevate this crisis beyond what it is. The writing is colloquial, verging on slangy. It is sometimes crass, sometimes poetic, and ultimately realistic.
Far from being an elegy on the problems of an upper class life, Freedom is a meticulous exploration of how we see ourselves and justify our decisions, as well as how we see others and choose to either validate or damn their actions. Franzen’s power is all in his details. Each protagonist is thoroughly explored, both in and of themselves and in relation to their family and friends. We’ve all met these characters somewhere in our lives. Their problems are often crises brought on themselves, but that’s what makes them so readable.
Another difference between Anna Karenina and Freedom is that this novel has a happy ending. Call me a naïve optimist, but I like that. People are frequently unhappy creatures, but rarely are they totally doomed. Readers and writers frequently confuse ‘realistic’ with ‘depressing’, and I appreciated that Franzen uses an even hand when portraying the good and the bad in life. Despite the Berglunds’ flaws and unhealthy obsessions (all depicted in a stark, unforgiving light), it nevertheless holds true that people can grow into better versions of themselves, even if it takes years or decades.
Just like no two families are unhappy in the same way, no two families make sweet potatoes in the same way. It’s a very American food that inevitably calls to mind Thanksgiving and barbecues, family events that sometimes need to be navigated carefully. This recipe also offers you the freedom (or the burden) to choose your own spices and accompanying condiments.
SPICED SWEET POTATO FRIES
Time: About 1 hour
Yields about 60 fries
- 2 lbs sweet potatoes (about 3 large ones)
- ¼ cup of olive or other vegetable oil
- 1-2 tbsps of brown sugar
- 1 tbsp of salt
- 1 to 2 tbsps of spice combination of your choice (chipotle powder, paprika, Chinese five-spice, garam masala, Cajun seasoning, etc.)
Preheat oven to 450°F. (For more crispiness, go to 500°F.)
Cut off the ends of the sweet potatoes. You can peel them if you like but I don’t because I like the added texture of the skin. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise and then, if they’re very long, in half crosswise. Cut each piece into wedges.
Put the wedges into a large, flat-bottomed bowl and add the oil. Mix well, then sprinkle in the salt, sugar and spices of your choice. (I used a blend of cayenne pepper, paprika, and ground rainbow peppercorns.) Use your hands to mix, so that all pieces are coated evenly with oil and spices.
Spread the wedges out in a single layer on a baking sheet; the oil they are coated with should keep them from sticking to the pan.
Bake for a total of 25 to 40 minutes, depending on your oven and your preferred level of crispiness. Halfway through baking, remove the tray from the oven and turn over all of the sweet potato pieces. Return to the oven and bake until they are well browned. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Adapted from Oven Baked Sweet Potato Fries recipe by Elise Bauer