Saturday, November 7, 2009

Remembering My Dad, Potatoes and Bread

Note: I just found this reflection I'd written over a year ago.

Remembering My Dad, Potatoes and Bread. April 19, 2008, Albuquerque

As I was peeling potatoes tonight to put into a stew, I thought of my father. I haven’t been eating many potatoes lately. Ed was also a “meat and potatoes” man, and I haven’t eaten many potatoes since he died.

We practically lived on potatoes when I was growing up. It wasn’t a meal without potatoes. But, my dad complained about the quality of the potatoes we were buying, and blamed their condition on commercial fertilizers. He was probably right. He disdained potatoes that had black holes and hollow cracks inside, that turned green, and were full of spots. He decided to grow potatoes to feed our family of four. We had a half an empty lot in our yard, and half of that became the potato patch. Our sandy Michigan soil was great for potatoes.

In the summer my brother John and I would be given a nickel, maybe a dime-- if we could fill a pint jar with potato bugs. I don’t think I ever got a nickel. It takes a lot of potato bugs, little round striped things, not very pretty, to fill up a pint jar. I don’t remember too much about the planting (I know my dad cut them into pieces with eyes, and after the first year saved some of the last year’s potatoes to plant), but it was fun to dig them up with a pitchfork, and see the beautiful potatoes come out of the ground. The first “new potatoes” in the summer were always a treat – tiny round balls with thin skin, delicious boiled with the skins on and seasoned with a little salt, pepper, and butter. Later, we’d be dig them in the cold, just before frost and snow. Sometimes the snow caught some still left in the ground.

My dad stored the potatoes in our basement over the winter. The basement had two parts – old and new. The furnace was in the new part, so it got a bit warmer in there in the winter time. The old part was lined on one side with wooden shelves filled with my mother’s canning jars. The middle of the room tended to be full of junk and empty boxes, and there was a hot water heater back by the canning jars. In the northeast corner, though, my dad constructed a couple of bins up against the wall out of wood and old doors.

He covered the bins with layers of burlap bags, and there he stored the potatoes that would feed us all year, until the new potatoes came in the next summer, and even for awhile after that. Sometimes the old potatoes got shriveled – he must have checked on them every so often and thrown out any that were going bad. I don’t remember ever noticing a rotten potato smell when it was my turn to go down to throw back the burlap, reach down into the dark, gritty, chilly bin, and bring up some potatoes for supper.

When I peeled my potatoes tonight, there were some black spots to cut out. Mine came from the store, not from the garden. I thought of my dad, and all the potatoes he had peeled, and thought he would approve of my stew.

I should have some homemade bread to go with it. Long as it has been since I have had potatoes, it is even longer since I made bread. Like the potatoes, my dad couldn’t find bread he was willing to eat, so after old Mr. Lavender’s bakery burned down and Mr. Lavender retired and then died, my dad decided to start making his own bread. By then he had sold his jewelry store, and was a stay-at-home dad. When my mother, brother, and I came home from school, 1 ½ blocks away, every day for the lunch my dad would have it ready for us – often some kind of goulash made of potatoes and hamburger (horsy-keep-your-tail-up), or salt pork and potatoes with white gravy; or kidney stew with tasty onions; or vegetable or pea soup. In the days before he had retired, we’d come home for a quick lunch made with tomato soup from a can and a toasted cheese or tuna sandwich (and sometimes I’d wished that was still what we had).

Dad’s bread wasn’t usually ready by lunch time, although it was often rising then. But after school on a bread day, the smell of fresh bread, still hot from the oven, was heavenly. My mother would often bring other teachers home with her on those days, and they would sit in the kitchen, sipping coffee, and eating the still warm bread spread with melting butter. A whole loaf could disappear on one of those afternoons.

For some reason my dad couldn’t get his dough to rise if he used dry yeast, the only kind the stores seemed to carry. Because of the difficulty of getting cake yeast, he came up with his own sour dough mix, which he kept in a jar and carried with him in later years when he and my mother traveled. I have a picture of him working on his bread in my kitchen in Tucson in 1975. He left me some of his starter, which I used for awhile, but finally had to let go. I didn’t have any trouble making bread with dry yeast, which I learned to buy in bulk and put in the freezer. There was a time that I made lots of bread, too. How did I get too busy or too lazy to stop, even with the help of my Kitchen Aid mixer? I did make bread most of the time in the years before I was married, because I, too, could not stand store bought bread, and it wasn’t easy to find good bread in grocery stores in those days.

One day, I was eating a sandwich made with my homemade bread (whole wheat or rye), in the student union at the University of Arizona. And older man sat down across from me, and commented on my bread, and when I told him that I’d learned bread-making from my father’s example, he told me that he used to bake all the bread for his entire family when he was a young boy!

I didn’t make bread tonight, Daddy, but I’ve sure been thinking of you. Maybe I’ll do it in the morning. When Psyche, your granddaughter came home over Christmas, she wanted to make bread, perhaps remembering how I made bread regularly when she was little, just as I fondly remember all the delicious bread you made for us so many years ago.


After I finished writing this, I got a bowl of the stew, not too bad, but a bit burned (the writer not paying attention). Then I turned on PBS and found an Independent Lens program about corn and the industrialization of agriculture, about growing corn with no food value, but high yields to feed feedlot cattle who get sick and die from this diet, if they are not butchered before that happens. Ugh! Much of it goes into making corn syrup, leading to epidemic of obesity and diabetes. My dad was ahead of the times in seeking more healthful eating and prudent use of our natural resources.