My mother’s potato peeling skills were only exceeded by her potato cooking expertise and were the thing culinary legends are made of. And since food and love go together, my mother’s love was measured in barrels.
It’s impossible to estimate how many hours she stood at the sink brandishing a paring knife. She could shave the skin from potatoes with the precision of a surgeon, results so thin they could have been submitted for frozen sections to the pathology lab.
Dad raised Katahdins on our farm, a round white variety. Most of the time Mum cut these gems in half and boiled them leaving the mashing and garnishing to us when we sat down for supper. Garnishes did not include anything fancy like bacon bits, sour cream or chives but consisted of butter and salt and pepper.
She always cooked extra and anytime I peered into the refrigerator searching for bread pudding or a slice of cream pie, I’d have to move a Tupperware container of boiled potatoes aside to reach my rich reward.
You might think her no-frills approach to cooking potatoes was boring, but having an endless bowl of potatoes readily available was food for my mother’s mission to create nourishing potato concoctions for us morning, noon and night.
Today you may hear this breakfast treat referred to as hash browns, but in our house when Mum fried leftover potatoes in a cast iron skillet it was hash. And it was not necessarily served for breakfast.
In late summer when fresh beets were available she would add them to the potatoes to make ‘red flannel hash.’ I always thought their beauty justified the label ‘red satin hash,’ but a potato dish is too humble to adopt such a pretentious name.
Every Saturday night baked beans were on the menu much to my chagrin. As an adult, I enjoy them and understand why Mum needed one night a week when she could combine yellow eye beans, molasses, and a slab of salt pork for a nearly effortless entrée.
Chunks of cold potato combined with chopped onion, hard-boiled eggs, and miracle whip made the perfect side dish for Mum’s Saturday night supper.
Those were the years before McDonald’s gave us access to french fries 24 hours a day. We would tremble with excitement when my mother reached for her french fry cutter, heated cooking oil in a deep skillet, and fried potato strips into individual pieces of heaven.
Holidays called for mashed potatoes with butter and heavy cream to make them rich and smooth. Leftovers were difficult to deal with since we didn’t have microwaves at that time. But if we managed to avoid licking the bowl clean, she would add onion and fry them like little pancakes for the Christian version of potato latkes.
In the spring Mum would take liberal slices when she peeled potatoes retrieved from the bottom of the barrel, removing gray spots and sprouts while we waited for a new crop of spuds.
What pleasure it was to accompany Mum into the field, dig up a potato plant and shake tiny potatoes from the roots about the size of Ping-Pong balls. Mum would scrub them clean, boil them with fresh garden string beans or peas and serve with her staple ingredient: heavy cream.
Usually, my mother left the donut making to my paternal grandmother, Grammie Sade, but every so often she dusted off her donut cutter and fried a batch of melt-in-your-mouth potato donuts.
Another uncommon goody was her homemade Needhams, composed of mashed potato, shredded coconut and so much confectionary sugar they made my teeth ache. Dipped in dark chocolate these were nothing short of divine.
You may wonder why I didn’t mention baked potatoes, but we rarely had access to russets, unless we bagged a few from one of Dad’s farmer friends. Patrick and I can’t get enough of the new Maine variety ‘Caribou Russets’ and I know Mum would have loved them too.
Are you a fan of white potatoes like I am? What is your favorite way to cook them? What food do you associate with your mother’s love?