Culinate Magazine published my essay “Plain Russets, Sans Chichis”.
Plain Russets, Sans Chichis…..
February 12, 2014
My husband eats baked potatoes the way some people eat truffles. Or foie gras. Or torafugu. Slowly, lovingly, and with almost sacred appreciation.
But like all food aficionados, he has his rules. First of all, the potatoes should be Russets. And ideally, they should come from Aroostook County, Maine, because that’s where his daddy grew them. Acres and acres of them.
For generations, his family had a potato farm up in Washburn. But his folks didn’t just grow the things. His father was also a State of Maine Potato Inspector, and Douglas learned, at his father’s knee, not to fool around when it comes to tubers. They have to be the right size, the right shape, and the right color, with no signs of nature’s hanky panky, otherwise known as hollowheart or black spot.
Before I married Douglas, I didn’t know or care much about potatoes. When it comes to my carbohydrate background, I’m a French bread snob and an Italian pasta lover. For a long time, I thought that Idaho was a tuber species unto itself. But it’s not.
Those blemish-free brown things called Idahos, sold at the supermarket in big bags, are usually really Russets. And Russets aren’t just one kind of potato either, I learned. There are Burbank Russets and Alpine Russets and Peribonkas and lots of other kinds, most of which were developed for growing in the climates of the Western states.
Eating a potato grown in Oregon or Montana is a bit sacrilegious to a man whose family started pulling rocks out of the soil of New England in the 17th century, but some things can’t be helped. A Russet is still a Russet. Of course, he turns his nose up at Austrian Crescents, Yukon Golds, and French fingerlings. And you’ll never catch him buying those fancy-schmancy blue potatoes from South America.
Douglas will even wax poetic over a field of potatoes in bloom. I once showed him gorgeous lavender fields in Provence, and he liked them well enough. But he didn’t think that they were as beautiful as potatoes.
“Potato flowers move with the wind,“ he said. “Lavender doesn’t really do much, does it?”
You and I might think that a plain, baked potato is kind of boring. Not Douglas. When he realizes that there are baked potatoes with dinner, he lets out a little gasp of pleasure, as if he is welcoming a long-lost relative to the table. When he stares at the humble Russet, perhaps he is seeing his rugged ancestors, carrying load after load to the potato house. Or maybe he’s remembering his own childhood. He left Maine to pursue a career in labor law and the ministry, but he never forgets where he came from, and he never fails to appreciate the work that goes into growing, harvesting, and preparing food.
As the steam rises, Douglas takes his fork and pushes down on the potato flesh here and there, mixing in butter as he goes. I think the potato/butter ratio is calculated, but I’m not sure. Sometimes he’ll also use his knife to make transversal cuts, like a surgeon. Then he slowly adds salt across the surface.
If there is a roast or a chicken leg, he’ll eat a bite or two of the meat and let the potato cool. He nibbles the broccoli or whatever other vegetable is playing second fiddle to the tater. Then he’ll return to the pièce de résistance. He’ll fluff up the flesh a bit and bring the first bite to his mouth.
“Ah, it’s just the way I like it,” he’ll say. “Not too moist, not too dry.”
He digs out every last little flake, like a very thorough archeologist.
It’s clear that for Douglas, the baked potato sums up everything that’s important in his life: respect, heritage, continuity, simplicity, and a full belly. He leaves, for the very last, the two dug-out potato skins, moored on his plate like little birch-bark canoes. He cuts them up with his knife and fork, savoring the still-lingering taste of the earth itself.
Certainly there are times when I wish I were married to someone with more exotic tastes — say, an oenophile, or at least someone who enjoys calamari. I’ll admit that it can be frustrating to try to expand a baked-potato lover’s horizons. He has no problem worshipping at the altar of mashed spuds from time to time, but he clearly doesn’t think potato gnocchi are part of the fold.
I once introduced him to the Swiss dish called raclette, in which waxy potatoes are eaten with pickles and cheese. He pronounced it “tasty,” which, I think, was a kind of self-conscious display of tolerance, like a rabbi or a priest listening to each other’s prayers at a town-wide ecumenical breakfast.
But overall, there’s something marvelous about a man who is so deeply and spiritually connected to the simple potato. I watch him eat, and I find myself thinking, “Oh, wise one, teach me, too, to look at my dinner plate and always see the divine, without complications.”
Sans chichis, as we say in French. Without fuss.
Baked Potatoes à l’Aroostook
You will need:
6 Russet potatoes, blemish-free and locally grown
1 kerosene stove
Salt and pepper to taste
On a cool morning, wake up at 6 a.m. and start the kerosene or woodstove in the potato house (where the potatoes are stored and sorted).
Wash the potatoes in cold water with a brush and dry thoroughly. Place the Russets on the top of the hot stove.
Work until noon. Take the potatoes off the stove. They will be powder-dry and delicious. Season and eat.
Spend the rest of your life with the memory of their taste.
Same as above, except with the gas or electric oven housed in your kitchen.
Approximate cooking times and temperatures, depending on your schedule:
45 minutes at 400 degrees.
60 minutes at 350 degrees.
90 minutes at 325 degrees.
120 minutes at 275 degrees.
At higher temperatures, prick holes in the skin with a fork to let steam escape. At lower temperature, don’t bother. Never wrap the potatoes in aluminum foil.
Season to taste, and be sure to eat the skin!