- Michelle Sterling
Potato, Potato, Potato: A word triptych
Life has been heavy lately. Ongoing events require our giving serious attention to serious things. This is also exactly the time we need to remind ourselves that it's also okay to give some attention to more joyful things in our lives. Doing that doesn't make us selfish, ignorant or bad; it makes us whole. It's the fuel we need to fill our spirits so we can then offer our complete attention to the other matters, as we are called to do.
In that light of just for fun, I offer you a word triptych. The potato, in three stories. Don't read this if you're hungry! Please enjoy.
The Breakfast Potato.
The year was 1984, and for some reason I had registered for a psychology class that met at 7:30 am. If you know me at all, you know this is very unlike me. I’m quite certain I would have dropped the class at some point during the semester if it weren’t for my friend Johanna and the Cajun Hashbrowns at Louie’s Café on State Street.
Before this fateful event, my exposure to potatoes at breakfast was limited to the diner variety shredded hash brown that makes an appearance on most savory breakfast plates. Sometimes greasy, sometimes burned, and frequently bland. With the exception of Waffle House (I’m a scattered, smothered, covered gal) I was mostly unimpressed. Hashbrowns were a plate a filler, a hangover helper.
One morning after class, my very cool prepster friend Johanna asked if I wanted to walk over to Louie’s with her for breakfast. In 1984 Louie's Café was on State Street, just on the outside edge of campus’s North Gates. State Street was the place where our day’s versions of the hipsters hung out, so it was also edgy in that sense. I had never been to Louie's, and with Johanna leading the way, I was all in.
The café was located in a small house, and when I say “small” I mean there were 10 barstools attached to the ground providing seating around an open kitchen, and two small tables. I was skeptical but the people eating there looked happy, and it smelled like heaven, so we sat at the table by the front window. I ordered an egg, probably a strip or two of bacon, and a side of Cajun Hashbrowns.
I’m not sure if I cried on the outside when I took my first bite of hashbrowns, but I do know that my inside voice rejoiced “Hallelujah!”
On my plate was a heaping pile of unevenly diced potatoes, skins still on, intermingling with fresh chopped green onions and generously sprinkled with a Cajun seasoned salt. They were fresh, hot, soft and crunchy, and pleasurably spicy. At the moment of my first bite, my hashbrown expectations were forever changed, and my breakfasts forever improved.
The Lunch Potato.
The year was 1972 and I had just moved with my family to the Netherlands. It was a time before being taught to fear change, so the transition could best be described as a joy-fueled culture shock. Nothing was familiar, everything was new, and it was all exciting. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, we would hop on our bikes and go to the street market for our groceries and treats.
The street market was a feast for the senses. Row after row of stalls line the narrow cobblestone streets along the canal. Stacks of cheeses, piles of fruits, fish hanging from ropes, breads and pastries and nuts, and flowers for days… Everything you could ever need was there. There was even a guy playing music on a giant street organ. And he had a monkey who wore a red hat. I mean, why would anyone ever want a grocery store?
There were also food carts. I want you to take a minute and imagine being outside at that market, in the fresh air and smelling all of those items I just described to you. The scent of all that cheese and fruit and flowers and fish comingling in space. Got it? Now I want you to add one more item: The smell of fresh hot french fries. Or “patat” as we called them there. Are you with me?
The Dutch have patat down. If you ever find yourself in a market in the Netherlands, do not deny yourself the opportunity to experience these for yourself. Cut into thick short sticks that day, dropped twice into hot grease, tossed with salt, and served in a white paper cone. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can get them topped with a sauce. The most common choice is a mayonnaise-style sauce. You don’t even have to know what it’s called. You can just order “met” which means “with.”
This began my lifelong love affair with the fry. If I ate fries every time I wanted fries, I’d be larger than the entire country of Holland. If I order fries with my lunch, I want them to be fresh, thick, hot, salty sticks of potato, just like the ones I grew up with. I’m not messing around either. If a place serves me cold, soggy fries, they get returned, and I won’t go back. But if I'm back in the Netherlands, the odds are high that you'll find me at a street market patat stand, cone in hand.
The Dinner Potato.
The year was 1978 and I was learning a lot about cooking from the neighbor lady Debbie I babysat for. Quick reminder: this was cooking in the late 70s. We were just expanding our palate from jello molds and iceberg wedges to more adventurous choices like Frito salad.
A common dinner side dish was the potato. It could show up mashed, scalloped, or baked. I preferred mine mashed and covered in a lake of gravy. Baked potatoes were usually split it in half and drowned it in au jus from the Sunday roast. Or covered in bacon bits. (How did bacon stay fresh in that little jar?)
One afternoon, Debbie was baking potatoes and I got to help. She had me put the potatoes in a bowl and then poke holes in them with a fork. This part wasn’t new. But then she had me drizzle them with vegetable oil!
Next, she showered them with Lawry’s seasoned salt. I couldn’t figure out why you would need the seasoning on the outside of the potato? Would it somehow make its way through the skin? I rubbed the seasoned salt into the oily potato skins, trying to hang on without letting them slip out of my greasy hands onto the ground. It wasn’t easy. The last step was to place them on a tinfoil lined baking sheet and put them into a super-hot oven.
I wasn’t invited to dinner that night, so the only way I was going to find out how they turned out was to make them myself. I followed the exact same steps and when I split open my hot potato, it revealed the fluffiest potato I'd ever seen. My fingers were covered in seasoned salt. So naturally, I licked them and washed it all down with a bite of potato fluff. Amazing! I neglected the rest of my meal and ate that potato, pulling it apart with my fingers, skin included, bite by bite until it was gone so there was exactly zero chance of involuntarily “sharing” it with my always hungry older brother.
I still make my baked potatoes this way. Although now I use olive oil and Louisiana Seasoned Salt. I also eat it as two meals. The first is the fluffy inside potato, mixed with butter, a generous dollop of Daisy sour cream, and chives from the garden. The skin is another meal, reheated it in a hot oven, and topped again with sour cream, and real bacon bits. Technically the skin serves as a salty sour cream holder. Although I do realize there is some nutritional value in the skins.
Mmmm. So much goodness there. That’s why I prefer making and eating my baked potatoes at home. The way I enjoy them is tactile and messy and probably also very noisy for anyone else who happens to be around. Consider yourself warned.