On Potatoes by Karen Babine

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close-up shot of a pile of potatoes, mostly brown, a few purple

When you spend enough time with a potato, you learn the differences between waxy and starchy by feel and instinct, not trivia. Sometimes the only way to know something is by doing, by experiencing the success and failure of the thing yourself. You learn that it’s perfectly logical to have both in the darkness of your pantry-closet in containers labeled boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew in bold black letters, so that you grab the Yukons for the potato corn chowder you’re making with today’s Parmesan broth, because you like the way your niece’s face lights up when you tell her you’re making her favorite soup. Or Yukons with sweet potatoes in the pot pie, so that they don’t disintegrate in the cooking. You want them to hold, firm. You’re not sure where this deep love of potatoes came from, the Hasselbacks, the gnocchi, the potatoes gleaned from the farms around your hometown in the fall to be made into lefse for the holidays. You, again, lament that your father’s retirement means that you don’t get fresh lefse for Christmas anymore, but you watch your friend make it and wonder about traditional foods and crafts becoming popular again among your generation.

Russets, baked in the microwave, make an excellent meal when you just can’t manage anything more. Fingerlings, roasted with sweet Walla Walla onions. You’ve spent enough time in Ireland—and in Irish literature—to know the history and the delicacy of this Peruvian export, how this efficient plant came to feed millions, only to be felled by a fungus exacerbated by Ireland’s monoculture and climate shifts caused by the Little Ice Age. You’ve read Michael Pollan and others; you know that the potato monoculture in this country runs the same risk, even as you know that your hometown soil is perfect for potatoes, the potato plant in Park Rapids smelling of French fries destined for McDonald’s, the food of our home destined for tables elsewhere. Far from boring, this food taken for granted in its simplicity—the potato—holds endless fascination for you, and it is one more way to create wonder.

You peel six medium Russets on this St. Patrick’s Day, two for each of you, and set them to parboil for five minutes in your blue Cousances Le Creuset dutch oven named Phyllis, then set them to cool for five minutes on the counter, the steam turning the air opaque as the outer layer of the potato dries out, just a bit. Next time you do this, you’ll toss them in a metal colander to rough up their outsides a bit. Meanwhile, your mustard-colored enameled Descoware casserole named Padraig heats with the 375 degree oven. You rescued him from the thrift store on St. Patrick’s Day, so naturally he needed an Irish name. Mix the potatoes with olive oil, salt, and pepper to coat, then add to the hot cast iron. It sizzles in a way that is deeply satisfying and you shake the pan to distribute evenly. Smoked garlic powder is magical here, but you’ve learned that it burns, so you’ll sprinkle it on at the end. You set the timer for 20 minutes, then come back to turn the potatoes, to shake the pan to cover them in oil so they brown nicely, and back in for three more cycles of 20 minutes. The result is perfect roasties: golden crispy on the outside, fluffy and perfect on the inside. You could make a meal out of this, you think as you tuck in, thinking about the rare strength your mother has to sit at the table tonight.

This potato has a dark history, a Peruvian uprooting: deaths of millions of people in a kind of culinary genocide as a million Irish starved and another million immigrated. There was still enough food in Ireland to feed the population, but the British hoped that An Gorta Mór would finally finish off the pesky Irish they’d been trying to get rid of for hundreds of years. There’s the dark greed of American agribusiness, the moment when agriculture became agribusiness, as the Minnesotan essayist Paul Gruchow once wrote. But the potato is still a perfect food. Even the most simple is complicated, textures beneath the surface if you’re willing to look. In a few months, when your mother’s chemotherapy ends, you’ll quarter red new potatoes, boil them, toss with crispy-steamed green beans, and mix with a balsamic-dijon-lemon concoction so good that you and your sisters will stand in the kitchen eating out of the bowl with your fingers.

karen-babineKaren Babine is the author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota, 2015), winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction. Her second essay collection, All the Wild Hungers, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2018. She also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her work has appeared in such journals as Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, and more. She lives and writes in Minneapolis.



STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/spraints

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