Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Subconscious Potatoes

It’s been a wet autumn, the first in about twenty years according to my father’s calculations.  While he was overseas, he rang in for reports and was glad to hear about the grass leaping away.  Just before he came back, I dug up a few potatoes from the three big rows at the top of the vegetable patch.  They looked fine, but when I cut into them I found that the centres were starting to go grey and soggy.

I always thought that potatoes were fine in the ground, but each time we visited the vegetable patch while the folks were away, I had visions from The Potato People by Pamela Allen.  In that picture book, a little boy and his granny dig up mountains and mountains of potatoes. Tambourines and Treacle Tarts! exclaims grandma.  Relying on a half memory of potato clamps, and leaning on the excuse that farming and gardening are my parents’ domain, I ignored that subconscious call to action. We usually relish our home grown potatoes and it was sickening to imagine them all rotting in the ground as a result of my laziness. Not that I did anything about the situation.

Dad came home and the next day he suggested we might get a bit of fresh air and exercise and dig up those potatoes.  I protested all the way, as I always do when fresh air and exercise are suggested.  

The crop was obviously ruined. 

I didn’t want to feed Joe blighted potatoes.

Surely we should cut open a few….

Dad went up first and started work.  Joe and I wandered out at our own pace. When we arrived, there were two little piles of potatoes glowing on the ground like golden nuggets.  Dad was on the long handed spade, Joe commandeered the short handled fork, and  I started to tickle them up with my fingers.  It reminded me of one of those Dali Lama lists.

Every year go somewhere you’ve never been before.

Every day, get some earth on your hands.


Most of the spuds were long, like yams, and many of them were magnificently malformed.  It’s exciting enough to discover potatoes with heads and bodies and potatoes with three legs, but a penguin, complete with flipper wings and a beaky head and capable of standing up…wow.

My friend Nick, who both writes and doesn’t write as fervently as I do, once quoted me a Tom Waites metaphor about creative process:

The best songs come out of the ground, just like a potato. You plan and plan, and then you wait for the potato.

Potato grubbing triggered thoughts for Dad too. His father was an award winning potato grower, on a farm just outside London.

My first love was a potato picker, Dad mused. A gypsy. She used to sneak up and grab me from behind.  I was so…scared.  We arranged to go on a date. She didn’t show up.

Later, we had harvesting machines. I remember one wet year.  We had to pick by hand, squeezing mud off the spuds like you squeeze wet soap.  There was plenty of swearing.  We never planted that field again.

We got a barrow and a half out of the  rows, not much of a crop really.  We graded them and will store them separately.  The ones that had been spiked with the fork were put in a bucket, to be cooked first.

These are bakers, said Dad, Can’t do that with new potatoes.

That night, my Kitchen Muse was out bar-loitering.  Dad cooked the spuds down at the homestead and brought them up to our place for dinner. Those ruined potatoes, baked slowly and loaded with butter, were so good.

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