Monday, October 24, 2011

Sweet Potato Bread: The Memory of Marching Band Still Refuses to Yield...

"I suck."

"No you don't." My band director, Mr. Music Man, was a tiny man who still weighed the same as when he wrestled in high school. He had acne as bad as some of the musicians he conducted. However, he did not sugar-coat his criticism: "I can't really hear you.  The worst person in the band I CAN hear."
My school had limited extracurriculars. I did Mock Trial in the winter and spring.  Occasionally, I'd be allowed to do a non-singing, non-dancing role in the school musical. I later became Vice-President of the National Honor Society, in case the President was ever assassinated. But back then, I was ambitious about getting into a good college, so I needed a fall activity.

After nearly impaling myself with a flag pole, I decided that the color guard was not for me. It gives you an idea of the desperation of the Music Man that I was drafted into the marching band, despite having no musical experience whatsoever.

I began by playing the base drum and then shifted to second trombone.  If this makes it seem as if I had latent talent, please understand that marching band music is very simple.  The second trombone repertoire only required me to play several notes, honking away in hiding at the base cleft. The first trombone, a dashing swimmer whom I had a hopeless crush on, soared and slid away at the glossy, brassy melody.
I have no photos of myself online playing the trombone, but you see it's not an attractive instrument.

My ineptitude was an apt metaphor for the entire marching band.  You people who are in band now, you have no idea.  With the popularity of Glee, band has retro cool.  Back then, band was polyester suits and supportive nurse shoes.  No one looked good in those uniforms.  The wan, hippie saxophonist who wanted to still play the flute had a uniform three sizes too large and she couldn't march because her pants dragged along the grass.  Her policeman's hat was rakishly askew as her waist-length hair flapped in the breeze, down to her waist.  Ophelia, as interpreted by John Phillips Sousa.

Most of the time, I was desperately trying to tell my left foot from my right foot, which seemed an impossible task while trying to purse my lips and blow through an enormous instrument. But sometimes I looked at the band with Music Man's eyes and felt sad for him.  It was a true rag-tag bunch, a real motley crew (unlike the crappy 80s metal band that clearly failed 7th grade English):

There was:

  • The freakishly young boy with no social skills, who played percussion. Everyone said his parents had him injected with some weird serum to boost his intelligence that could only be found in Canada.

  • The freakishly strong, incredibly talented snare drum girls. Both of them had the sincerest, deepest, and dare I say, NICEST Christian faith I had ever encountered up until that time, and with their powerful sense of rhythm, I just knew they were channeling the Little Drummer Boy in their minds.

  • The talented drum major who looked like an African American even though his biological parents were Caucasian (we did not ask) and made wearing the plumed hat look almost cool.  He was so patient with the woodwinds as they would drift outside of the predetermined formation, every time, yet again...

  • My closest friend in the band, who grew up to be a rabbi, played the saxophone with a wry, ironic squint on his face, and was unsparingly honest with me about how big the bright Smurf blue polyester suit made my ass look.
  • Several hippie girls who looked like extras from Sergent Pepper's  Lonely Heart's Club Band. 
  • And the first trombone, who was a swimmer and had the physique of David that not even a plastic, breast-flattening breastplate could conceal.  Michael Phelps would have wept.

Most of the time, because of the very varied level of abilities, the music was a formless cloud.  Even the good musicians couldn't cover up the bad.  And often the good musicians were bored, forgot the formation, and would turn the wrong way, casting the orchestration and the notes to the wind.  But Music Man tried.  Oh, he tried.  More than the music (which featured such standards as "Rule Britannia," the "Indian War Cry" and "We Will Rock You") I remember slipping and sliding in the band bus along with the instruments and going to Friendly's after games to eat enormous peanut butter sundaes or to Jersey diners to eat fried mushrooms.

We all loved band and knew that the football team was getting its just desserts given the way we played, while we scarfed down our Happy Endings.

And no, that wasn't a euphemism for anything.  Nothing is a bigger turnoff than seeing a girl playing an instrument as tall as she is, her cheeks puffed out, wearing a big blue uniform.

Some days, our peaceful sense of calm was disturbed with flashes of what could have been.  Thanks solely to the efforts of Music Man, one year were were allowed to compete at the lowest level at a marching band invitational at Giant Stadium.  I remember the feeling of astroturf beneath my supportive waffle-soled shoes and how the light reflected off of the drum major's shiny hat.  But most of all I remember seeing the winning band from the very highest level of competition.

Maybe my memory plays me false, but I recall them wearing...kilts and tall, puffy the spirit of the British bands that marched through the colonies had been channeled into a New Jersey high school named Monsignor Donovan.   Their uniforms were starched, perfect....the arrangement was Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom of the Opera, but it was so much better than the cheesy Broadway tunes I used to listen to after school ("I'll show them all one day, like the Phantom!"). The arrangement had pared down Weber's excess and stripped the story to its barest essentials.  The color guard girls had white, writhe-like costumes.
Our color guard looked more like this...

Then, suddenly, a boy and a girl broke forth from the color guard.  The boy was dressed in a black shirt and pants with a mask. He was Erik, the Phantom.  A color guard girl put down her flag and became Christine.  They mimed the entire play, taking the story back to when it was actually art, a la Lon Chaney in the silent original.  The color guard lifted up different visual arrangements, and as the kilted band wove in and out like a wave. Finally, a gigantic phantom face was created as the guard lifted up white and black flags in perfect unison.  Erik and Christine drifted away, ever unhappy, forever parted as "The Music of the Night" came to a close.

Marching band music is cheesy and all-American and lots of people make fun of it. I know some people would have looked at that arrangement and said: "it is done well and took effort, but was it worth it in the first place?"

I had several coffees at the Inkwell (a fetid coffee shop where it was unwise to eat the food) with my band mates after watching Monsignor Donovan, still awed at what was possible, what we would never achieve. Maybe it was the sleeplessness or the caffeine buzz but at the time I totally thought it was worth it--all that effort.  And I still do.

You can't get more all-American than marching bands sweet potato bread.  This is a great way to get rid of extra sweet potatoes after Thanksgiving, or if you want a nice alternative to pumpkin. Make some for your kids with hot chocolate after they come home from a high school football game.  Just don't ask them what the score was, or if the marching band was any good. Unless they go to Monsignor Donovan.

Sweet Potato Bread


1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice blend (allspice, ginger, cloves)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
12 ounces of skinned, mashed cold sweet potatoes (approximately 2 medium potatoes)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup neutral-tasting vegetable oil like canola
2 large beaten eggs
Pecans (optional, for garnish)


2 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water


1. Preheat oven to 350. Oil and line a 8x4 loaf pan with parchment.
2. Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, spices, and sugar together
3. Blend potatoes, honey, oil and eggs.  Gradually add the dry into the wet mixture.
4. Pour into the pan.  Press several pecans on the top as garnish. Bake for 40-50 minutes until a toothpick can be extracted clean.
5.  Remove from pan. Whisk together the sugar and honey.  Add water until a creamy white icing is formed.  Pour glaze on top of loaf.  Cool at least an hour before cutting and serving.


  1. Marching bands are something you rarely see here. Other than the Toronto Santa Claus parade I honestly don't think I have ever seen one. Our favourite sport takes place on ice, which I believe could only lead to some painful hilarity.
    The Sweet Potato bread sounds great and is actually the first recipe for it I have ever seen. I can't even imagine the flavours of sweet potato in a quick bread, but up until a few weeks ago I couldn't imagine it in a pie either and I loved it. I'm really looking forward to trying this out.
    (I'm assuming 12oz is volume not weight).

  2. @Adam--good point on the volume/weight. It actually is by weight--my two medium potatoes weighed in at 12 ounces, before being cooked and skinned and mashed (6 ounces per potato).

    Measuring mashed potatoes can be tricky, even more so than flour because of how tightly it is 'packed'--I did measure by volume the potato, and it translated into 1 3/4 cups of potato. The bread doesn't have much flour for that volume of vegetable, but unlike pumpkin the potato is so starchy it 'adds' to the structure of the bread.

  3. I played the flute in middle school band, but never made it to the marching band.

    I LOVE sweet poatoes. I'm obsessed. I bet this is even better than my legendary pumpkin bread.

  4. @BD--the reviews 'irl' for the bread were great--I adore pumpkin bread (yours looked SO good) but this is a nice way to 'switch it up' particularly for the crazy people who aren't that fond of pumpkin.