Someone said, “There goes the neighborhood’s intelligentsia,” upon hearing about a bookstore closing in the neighborhood. It was a quaint shop of diverse — mostly African-American — literature, music, and small gifts. The book store owner gladly ordered any book upon request, and she welcomed suggestions about upcoming books and authors. When I first moved into the neighborhood, seeing a book shop prominently display African-American literature, from the Nobel Peace Prize to the urban world fiction authors, warmed the heart. The shop had a cozy atmosphere with stained wooden shelves, framed autographs from notable authors, a painting of an angel reading a book that doubled as the shop’s logo, a play corner for young kids, and a long comfortable window seat. It was difficult to not stop in to say hello on the way to the coffee shop. Other times, a cup of coffee was enjoyed in the shop. Not only was the shop a place of literature, for it supported the community. It sponsored poetry events for young adults, introduced new authors, held reading workshops for children of various ages, and organized book clubs for adults.
On the last Friday in October, the local coffee shop held a closing party to honor the bookshop. I volunteered to bring a dessert. Looking through old recipes, Emeril Lagasse’s Sweet Potato and Chocolate Cream Bars were found. It’s similar to a sweet potato pie, cheesecake or custard. The crust is made with graham crackers and pecans. Bittersweet chocolate is swirled throughout the sweet potato cream. It’s sweeten with brown sugar, thus the taste is less sugary and more flavorful. There are hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. Perhaps, there’s room for a tablespoon of dark rum next time this dessert is made. Along with the Sweet Potato and Chocolate Cream Bars, the coffee shop served additional hors d’oeuvres as well for the closing party. The overflowing crowd sipped wine, laughed, and shared stories as kids whirled, ran, whizzed, skipped, and danced around the shop.
All that is left of the book shop is the brown and tan stripe awning hovering over a once decorative window that is now permanently covered with metal chains. Dust is accumulating on empty wooden shelves and the floor. The lifeless space is waiting for its new owner. Recently, I visited another bookshop to purchase a children’s book for a neighbor’s party. The experience of shopping there was a jolt of reality. The sales people were super kind and patient, but the books by African-Americans were placed in a small section waiting to be displayed in the store’s front window for Black history month in February.
Our neighborhood lost a cultural iconic shop that for ten years served as the neighborhood center of African-American intelligentsia’s and their family or household. I always assumed it would be forever open. Whatever the reason for its closure, whether it’s the economy or the owner wanted to move on to bigger and better places, it is missed.
Sweet Potato and Chocolate Cream Bars
1-1/2 to 2 lbs. sweet potatoes
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
A heaping 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla
3 large eggs
3 cups of organic milk; 2% is fine, whole is better
2-1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 cups pecans; finely grind
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips
Garnish: Powdered Sugar and Mint leaves
1. Roasting the Sweet Potatoes: Preheat oven to 375°F. Using a fork, pierce holes throughout the sweet potatoes. Rub sweet potatoes with olive oil. Bake until a fork is easily removed from the potatoes, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Once soft, remove potatoes from the oven and let cool. Remove the skin and mash potatoes in a large bowl. Whisk in the brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, vanilla, eggs and 2-1/2 cups milk. Set aside.
2. (Do ahead as the sweet potatoes are roasting) Butter a 13″ x 2″ x 9″ baking dish. Combine the graham cracker crumbs and the pecans in a food processor. Once the potatoes are removed from the oven and cooling, run the food processor to combine the pecans and the graham cracker crumbs. Slowly pour melted butter to make a crumbling crust. Place the crumbling crust into the baking dish. Using your fingers, firmly press the crumbling crumb evenly on the bottom and sides of the dish. Place the baking dish aside.
3. Pour the sweet potato mixture into the baking dish.
4. Over medium-low heat, place 1/2 cup milk and chocolate pieces in a sauce pan. Whisk until the chocolate is smooth. Spoon chocolate over the sweet potato mixture in three, lengthwise rows, spaced 1 to 2 inches apart. Using a knife, make a zigzag pattern to marbleize the chocolate and the sweet potato mixture.
5. Place baking dish in the oven and cook until the edges are brown and filling is set, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
6. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Chill overnight or for a few hours. Slice into individual servings and garnish with powdered sugar and/or mint leaves. Store left overs in the refrigerator. Best served slightly chilled.
Note: Recipe adapted from Everyday is a Party by Emeril Lagasse with Marcelle Bienvenu and Felicia Willet
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