Growing up, potatoes meant russets. That was alright. Baked potatoes were cool. The russet could be cubed, boiled, then seasoned and deep-fried into naughty little homemade hash browns, or stripped down to nothing and transformed into slivers of crisp, seasoned Hasselbacks, or made into a potato salad. The potato was something that needed stuff done to it to make it amazing.
Then I met new potatoes, and I began waiting all year for the arrival of those first, crisp, clean orbs with the barely-there skin, at times tinged the faintest pink. I feasted on the simple pleasure of these young, boiled roots, tossed for a few minutes in olive oil, with garlic and whatever fresh herb caught my fancy. The fact that this discovery coincided with the tail end of the Atkins Diet craze only amused me. Potatoes evil? Please.
The first time I visited the Kits Farmers Market, I checked out every stall at leisure. I returned to the ones that caught my eye at the the end of the day for my last-chance purchases. One of the places I had to visit again was a stand selling only potatoes. I’d never seen so many kinds. Aside from standard small, white new potatoes, they had tiny deep purple varieties, long, slender types, red skinned. A sort of potato United Nations. Each type boasted various properties beyond size and hue. Floury. Waxy. Fluffy. Boilers. Roasters. Great for salads. Hmm, I thought. Is it really that serious?
The kind potato girl manning (womaning?) the booth noticed my interest, swept up a bag of tiny potatoes, and tucked them into my arms. “Take them,” she said, “the day’s almost over, and I’d rather they go to someone who will appreciate them.”
That was the beginning of my true appreciation for these magical, rooty treasures. I learned that descriptions of potatoes as ‘waxy’ and ‘floury’ are not pretentious, but precise. Perhaps a bit pretentious, but when your mouth’s full and your taste buds are celebrating, who cares?
The first year fella and I planted a community garden plot together, we planted three or four tiny banana fingerlings, gifted to us from a neighbour who had too many to grow herself. Only a few came up, but they were the best, most
delicious potatoes ever grown. Something so simple becomes a tiny miracle when you pull it yourself from the ground, minutes before it goes into the pot. This year, we graduated to the Mac Daddy garden plot: a 10 by 12 footer, a third to half of which is potatoes.
If you’ve never pulled potatoes, try it sometime. (You’ll want to pull your own. Don’t go pulling other people’s potatoes: it’s as bad as it sounds.) Potato plants need to finish flowering before you begin pulling; some folks like to wait until the plant begins to flatten out and eventually desiccate before pulling up the stalk, parting the soil, and pulling out the cool, firm tubers waiting beneath the soil.
Digging for potatoes is like digging for treasure. You never really know how much is waiting in the dirt for you. When you find one, your fingers just brushing that telltale coolness, it’s like finding gold. And out you pull it. Is it a tiny, tender baby potato? A big bad mamma jamma? Someone humbly in between?
Perhaps it’s an unusual character. Like Eric here, on the right.
Though there are many wonderful things to do with potatoes–home fries, lemony Greek-style roasting, oven-frying, mashing, stuffing, making into salads, Hasselbacking–I still favour that simple treat. Olive oil, a little salt, fresh herbs, browned until the exterior gets just a little bit crispy and browned. Sometimes simple pleasures can’t be beat.