by Margaret Mendel
Recipe for RED POTATO SALAD WITH GARLIC VINAIGRETTE at the end of this article.
I had an uncle who used to eat raw potatoes. I remember seeing him in late summer leaning against a fence post, the hot sun blazing down on his newly turned potato patch. He’d rinse the dirt from one of the potatoes with the water from a gallon jug he carried on the back of his tractor, inspecting the potato for a short while. He’d then slice it up with his pocketknife and pop the morsels into his mouth. In the back of my mind I have a niggling memory that I have tasted a raw potato, but I cannot remember the incident.
I grew up in a German-Irish household and I only remember a few dinners from my childhood where we did not have potatoes in the evening meal. Mom tried to get rice and pasta on the table but Dad complained that this fancy food gave him heartburn or that he could never get full eating that kind of stuff. So, mom found herself chained to the potato striving to serve this vegetable in every way that she could think of.
In my freshman year of college I had a friend whose mother was afraid of potatoes. She believed that they were often poisonous and refused to cook them. I thought my friend’s mother was nuts. I’ve since learned though that poorly stored potatoes will develop toxic alkaloids and the shoots that sprout from the eyes of a potato can also contain toxins. These potatoes must be peeled very thickly and all sprouts thoroughly removed. Though I’ve never known anyone who has gotten sick or died from eating this vegetable.
When I left my parent’s home I thought I’d forever be done with the potato and I’d convinced myself that if I didn’t cook the potato, all that this vegetable represented to me simply did not exist. For years I used noodles in place of potatoes in my soups. I never baked, fried, mashed or creamed a potato. My son, however, ate buckets of mashed potatoes when we went to a restaurant and my daughter fell in love with French fries at a very early age. So, slowly the potato wheedled its way back into my life. And though I didn’t like it, I stopped fighting the past and I began to cook what my mother used to call, ‘those danged old things.’
I visited a museum the other day and saw Van Gogh’s painting titled “The Potato Eaters”. It’s a dark piece of art made up of mostly brown tones. The entire painting has the look of a dirty unwashed potato that has just been pulled from the earth. The people in the painting are ugly and strangely resemble potatoes themselves. Yet, Van Gogh manipulated the tones of his paint in such a way that it appears, even with only the glow of lamplight, that there is a warmth in the room. In a letter to his brother Van Gogh said: “I have tried to make it clear how those people, eating their potatoes under the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in their dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food.”
This painting made me think of my family eating potatoes on a stormy winter night. My father’s fingernails grimy from motor oil and my mother becoming more stooped as the years went by, her face pinched and her eyes dulled with disillusion. I don’t think we looked like potatoes but there was something so honest and raw about our lives back then that I could have almost seen my father as the man in the Van Gogh painting reaching out, handing one of my sisters a roasted potato impaled on the end of kitchen fork.
Mom didn’t keep up with the growing varieties of potatoes that had begun to hit the market place. When I told her that I’d been served mashed purple potatoes at a wedding reception, she said, “Well, I’ll be. What will they come up with next? How’d they taste?”
“They tasted like potatoes, Mom.”
There was a time in my young married life when we had to make every penny count. During those days I boasted of being able to stretch one chicken to last an entire week. I didn’t feel poor. I felt challenged. Cooking chicken had become a game, a nightly tournament.
I wish now that I had asked my mother if she had felt challenged when she stood at the kitchen stove cooking potatoes. Had she turned the potato into her own personal tournament the way that I had done with the chicken? I guess I want to believe that she found some enjoyment in creating our dinners from that never-ending supply of potatoes.
RED POTATO SALAD WITH GARLIC VINAIGRETTE
3 pounds small red potatoes (washed well but not peeled)
4 cups stock (Chicken, vegetable, beef stock or water. Stock adds flavor to the potatoes.)
¼ cup sherry vinegar
½ cup red onion, finely diced
½ cup celery, finally diced
4 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
¼ cup sherry vinegar
1 Tablespoon good quality prepared mustard
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
¼ cup fresh basil, minced
¼ cup fresh mint, minced
Cook potatoes in stock (or water) until fork tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain potatoes and reserve liquid for another recipe. Slice potatoes into ½-inch thick slices. Put potatoes in large bowl, drizzle with ¼ cup sherry vinegar, toss gently and set aside.
When potatoes have cooled add finely diced onion and celery.
Combine garlic and mustard in a medium-sized bowl. Whisk in vinegar. Slowly add oils, whisking vigorously to make a thick emulsion. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour vinaigrette over potato mixture and toss lightly. Add basil and mint and toss once again. Let stand for 1 hour before serving. Served best at room temperature.