Sunday, September 18, 2011
The potato is a tragic vegetable. In 1992 Dan Quayle couldn’t spell it and lost the election. In today’s dumbed-downed America his ignorance would have been enough to sweep him into office.
The church at first denounced the tuber since it was not mentioned in the Bible. Makes sense to me. I doubt if sweet potato fries or potato latkes were mentioned either and now I’m getting hungry. It’s too bad, news of their condemnation didn’t reach Ireland in time for the blight of 1845-1850 which wiped out a third of their population, half through death and the rest by emigration to supply the Boston and New York City police force.
At first potatoes were scorned in Europe because they looked misshapen like leprous limbs and therefore must be the source of leprosy. A brilliant piece of illogic which might also have concluded that eating carrots and celery would lead to a tall and lanky population.
More likely, too many potatoes could hasten the onset of diabetes. They are high in carbohydrates but otherwise quite nutritional. At least they sustained the down-trodden during a century of the Industrial Revolution, but barely. They grow in soil otherwise un-arable which describes the land tilled by the peasantry. As a borderline diabetic, I generally substitute coleslaw or fruit in lieu of potatoes
The region around Chile and Peru bequeathed potatoes to the world. Remains have been found which date back twelve thousand years. Spanish Conquistadors, obsessed with gold, had to settle for sweet potatoes. China, of all places, produces more of them now than any country. French fries must be America’s revenge to the Chinese who are becoming a fast food nation thanks to McDonalds and KFC. Leon Trotsky, who seemed always to be on the wrong side of history, thought it could feed Mother Russia but Lenin decreed there be all that wheat and no potatoes so now they drink it as the Mother of all Vodka.
Mash it or hash it, bake it or pancake it. Soup it, stew it or scallop it. Pomme de terres, being of the earth for earthlings, are well-named by the French. The English boiled theirs which may account for the fall of the British Empire.
Potatoes can change lives. When the actress, Doris Roberts, was in kindergarten she had one line in a play. She said, I am Patrick Potato and this my cousin, Mrs. Tomato. She heard laughter and decided to be on the stage from that moment on. Kids learn to count, one potato, two potato, three potato, four. When they grow up they will join a nation of couch potatoes munching on chips that we can’t eat one of.
My mother was famous in our family for her lumpy mashed potatoes; it was a perfect complement to burnt liver. As a result I had a fondness for potato salad. An early memory of potatoes occurred watching old war movies when a soldier was given K.P. as punishment. The next scene saw him peeling spuds.
One of my first poems depicted an imagined scene of my grandfather, as a boy, hiding from the Cossacks in a cellar and finding his way across the ocean on the rhizome of a potato. Indeed great migrations might be attributed to the wings of the tuber.
John Reader, in his book, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, argues that this ubiquitous vegetable played a major role in the rise of both Western civilization and the current Chinese ascendency, mostly by keeping the multitude’s bellies full and their tolerance for poverty high; and that’s no small potatoes.
Perhaps life, as it is lived, is a series of small potatoes. As Alan Watts put it, Zen does not confuse spirituality, with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.