Essays from
Giving Ground


Potatoes have saved lives. Many seafarers would have died of scurvy but for the discovery that potatoes, cooked in their jackets, contained enough vitamin C to prevent that plague of the voyagers.

Potatoes - or the lack of them - are responsible for at least one mass migration movement to the United States. The Irish potato famine caused many Irish families to leave their country and look to the New World for deliverance.

Mashed potatoes and gravy:  the stuff of childhood memories. We always asked for it to be on our birthday supper menus. Maybe we knew that we needed to pay homage in the celebratory times because mashed potatoes had stuck by us in the hard times;  while we were being castigated for some transgression at the dinner table, we could stare down into our mashed potatoes and imagine ourselves elsewhere. We could focus our attention on the mixing of potato with gravy and the pushing of this around on the plate with almost complete absorption, thus retaining a modicum of childhood dignity.

When grownups eat potatoes they never feel guilty for having gone over their food budgets; potatoes are always inexpensive, potatoes keep well without fuss. Amidst all the talk of diets, this homely vegetable still offers us comfort; we can't get fat on potatoes if we don't load them with butter and sour cream, and they are good sources of potassium and other minerals, fiber, B vitamins and protein.

Like bread and cheese, they make a meal for many people around the world. They are found, packed in straw and burlap, in the homes of the poor, and served in copper chafing dishes as Potatoes Anna or Chantilly Potatoes with whipping cream, in the great, high-ceilinged dining rooms of the wealthy.

Potatoes are a very traditional part of the Festival of Lights of two world religions: the Jewish Hanukkah celebrations wouldn't be complete without latkes, or potato pancakes, and would our Christmas feasts be possible without mashed potatoes and turkey gravy?  However pedestrian a vegetable we consider potatoes to be, we set them out beside elegant corn puddings, yams with marshmallow meringue and orange sauce, turnips with nutmeg, salads with artichoke hearts and Greek olives. And what does everyone reach for while we are still saying our "Amens"? And what serving bowl is not only emptied first, but vigorously scraped clean, even under the purse-lipped surveillance of mothers and visiting aunts?

Potatoes have lots of homey lessons for us. They give comfort and solace without asking much in return. They exhibit the "Starch!" our visiting aunt used to bemoan the absence of in whatever generation she was referring to at the moment. They are resilient, tenacious, almost gummy in their willfulness.

Copyright 2013 by Pam Thompson

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