Potatoes are amazing. This seems an uncontroversial, even incontrovertible thing to say. Everyone will have their own stories that illustrate the point, most likely going all the way back to childhood.
My mind immediately goes to two things: the potato chips my mother used to make at home to accompany fish (or sometimes, in that very British way, just eggs) and the pictures my classmates and I would make in early primary school using potatoes that had been cut in half and daubed in oil paint.
Potatoes seem, when you think about, ridiculously useful. I can’t think of another vegetable you can do so many things with (to?) to such advantageous effect: boil, mash, bake, fry. You can make alcohol from them and, as we’ve seen, children’s paintings of a satisfyingly tactile and messy kind.
And yet this starchy, tuberous crop – introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century – is not often given its dues. Think of the contempt coiled in that phrase ‘meat and potatoes’. It’s a food often associated with poverty. And perhaps, in at least as far as the whiter varieties are concerned, there’s something about their dirtiness that sets them apart from other vegetables too. (Except for organics, I can’t think of another vegetable in the supermarket that’s possible to buy that is as grimy as those unwashed potatoes you can get. Kipflers are probably my favourite variety, and tend to require a good scrub before cooking. The website Specialty Produce describes kipflers, enticingly and almost lyrically, in this way: The Kipfler potato has a narrow, elongated, finger-like shape. Their thin, waxy skin is tan to dusty yellow in colour, often spotted with a few shallow eyes. Its internal flesh is smooth with a golden yellow hue. When cooked, Kipfler potatoes offer a nutty and buttery taste with a creamy texture.)
Something I have learned: never peel potatoes before cooking them. Everything, even mash, is better – and better for you, as I’ve heard nutrients tend to inhere in the darker parts of fruits and vegetables, which usually means the skin – with the skin left on.
One more childhood memory. The year is 1997, and I suppose I must be 12 or 13. The so-called McLibel case, in which McDonald’s sued two English activists for distributing a pamphlet criticising the fast food company, is all over the news. Seeing this David and Goliath struggle awakened – I’m fairly sure for the first time – my sense of injustice. I was angry, and set about a boycott before I even knew what a boycott was. Then came a day when, as a special treat, my class was allowed McDonalds for lunch. I refused to buy anything and when offered some fries by my best friend slid a single one out of that familiar red and yellow carton and crushed it in my hand in front of her. ‘I got more pleasure from doing that than I would have from eating it,’ I told my friend. I feel ashamed when I think of this, but maybe I’m being too harsh on my younger self. Maybe I just didn’t know what to do with the information that the world was unjust other than be self-righteous and obnoxious about it. Still – the lack of graciousness smarts even now, 20 years later. And I still don’t know what to do about the fact that the world isn’t fair.
Be kind, yes.
And eat more potatoes.