“Potatoes are cheaper, tomatoes are cheaper, now’s the time to fall in love.” Eddie Cantor, 1930
She sat beside me at the Velvet Freeze soda fountain and snack bar on a cold snowy winter’s afternoon. School had been canceled. We were sharing an extra large order of homemade french fries smothered in Heinz ketchup. She and I reached for one and our fingers touched. Our eyes met as she reached over and with one pale finger tip, wiped some ketchup from my lower lip. I could not feel my legs. At that same moment, Johnny Mathis popped up on the juke box and began to sing “Chances Are.”
Love and the fried potato. Who can deny the truth? Potatoes brought us together.
What is all this fuss lately about the humble potato?
Lately on these pages, there has been a rumble about this romantic and nutritious vegetable. I learned that the potato has gotten a bad rap, and has been excluded from the Women’s Infants and Children’s Nutrition Program.
Do we care? Yes. Each and every one of us, from infants to teenagers to shuffling, mumbling seniors like myself, consider the potato a sacred object right up there with the communion wafer, an evocative icon of all of our troubled and joyful youth.
If it were not for potatoes, or more accurately, the lack of them in Ireland in 1860, I would not be here entertaining you.
Miles Conlon and his six sons and two daughters, and Matt Devine and his children would not have gotten on the boat at Cobh and debarked at Ellis Island. Actually, there is more to the story, something about a stolen pig, two chickens, the British cops and the early IRA. For the record, it was all about a fungus known as phytophthora infestans that caused the potato blight that sent the Emerald Isle into a spiral of famine, death and disease.
My ancestors thrived on the potato. The potato is in my DNA. It is said that the average laborer ate around 12 to 14 pounds of potatoes a day, and without ketchup. Actually the favorite was a dish called Colcannon, a bowl of shredded cabbage and mashed potatoes seasoned with melted butter. It’s still my favorite.
The potato was a staple in the kitchens of Irish cops, railroad workers, saloon keepers, firemen and writers. The Germans in my neighborhood probably ate more potatoes than we did, but let them tell their own story.
There were two indispensable items in the lives of Irish Catholics of my time, the sacred host at communion and the potato at lunch and supper. The very rich had dinner, and served lamb. The middle class had supper and ate potatoes.
No table was complete without a bowl of potatoes — mashed, chopped, boiled or baked — at supper. When times were tough, pork chops, meat loaf and lamb chops were scarce, but potatoes were omnipresent.
At the end of the Great Depression, my brothers and I watched the homeless men sitting around fires on the river’s edge, roasting my mother’s potatoes, so called because my mother and other women on the block kept a basket of potatoes on the back porch to hand out to those sad wanderers who were floating on a dead wind across America.
My brothers and their buddies picked up on the idea and would take a few and find a deserted patch of empty lot to start a fire in a barrel and roast their own. Occasionally, they would toss one to me right off the fire. It always burned my fingers and I’d scream and drop it. It was at that moment that the phrase “dropped like a hot potato” was formed. Others have claimed it, but it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
How sad the world would be without it, imagine a future full of thin, healthy, beautiful people, who long ago had given up potato salads at the Sunday picnic, french fries soaked in ketchup, scalloped potatoes, mashed with horseradish and butter and pepper.
Imagine the horror of Hanukkah without Aunt Sophie’s golden crispy latkes, tiny roasted potatoes next to your omelets, bowls of potato chips next to the salsa and guacamole on Super Bowl Day.
I have two words for the DOA and the WIC. Take a hike. Oh! That’s three words.
Sorry, I just burned my fingers on my roasted potato.
J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.