A few thoughts on the noble potato and its future in our diet.
Potatoes were always an ideal food for children, depending on the time of year. One of the reasons that Ireland had such a high population before the potato famines in the mid 19th century was that infants weaned from breast onto potatoes (they would have been about 12 months old) survived in higher numbers than their European counterparts. The infant mortality rate was comparatively low. Nowadays, children would not have potatoes introduced into their diet until they begin a mixed diet in the second six months of life. Parents need to get to know potatoes well so they can choose which ones will suit their child’s digestion.
Potatoes are best served to a group sitting to the table together- be it family, friends or meitheal (the team of men working together on the land). As a child, I witnessed the men coming in from the farm to my Granny’s kitchen for their dinner at midday. They were always hungry and ate in silence. Potatoes came from the next field and were served in a large pot. When the men finished eating, they would praise the potatoes, discussing the variety, the means of cooking etc. “ Balls of flour” “I prefer them waxy…”. Nowadays, if members of a family are all having their main meal at different times, you can be sure that potatoes are not chosen, unless Mum/Dad cooks for all, plates it out, and they microwave it as they come in.
When a family eats together, the children get to experience the pleasure of their parents/friends etc. as they enjoy their food. They copy their parents and develop similar habits. They learn not only how to eat a balanced diet, but also the dexterity required to use cutlery. Peeling hot spuds when you’re hungry requires skill. The manners and social acumen learned in “pass the salt/pepper/butter, please” don’t go amiss either.
Now that nuclear family is in decline, education and advertising need to be targeted at all the types of community in which people spend more of their time e.g. work canteen, children’s day-care.
Varieties. My adult daughters, once they began cooking, used to complain about potatoes… “they turned to mush in no time” “ How can you tell how long they take to cook when they vary so much?” They had to acquaint themselves with the different varieties, how to choose and buy, and how to know the difference. Seasonal variation is also very important. New spuds can be steamed briefly and taste of the soil they came from. “Terroir” is what French wine growers call it. Older spuds can handle all the other more robust treatments and some varieties have a magnificent flavour, although I will never again use Golden Wonders on Christmas Day as there’s too much going on in the house….last time I forgot about them for a few minutes and they disintegrated. Luckily, I usually keep a 4 stone bag of Kerr’s Pinks, Records or Maris Pipers in a cool room, so all was not lost. This year, we’re still eating our own Cara potatoes….wonderful flavour. Nor have I much value on Roosters, except when cooking stuffed, baked potatoes for teenagers or people coming in after sport. To my eternal shame, because I don’t have a preference for mashed potatoes, my eldest daughter never learned the technique from me. Instead, she returned from her Erasmus year in Cologne, having learned how to make the most ambrosial mashed potatoes from her Schwarzwalder housemate. It’s become one of her signature dishes. The German girl was SO proud of her culinary skills. We could all learn something from her.
Spuds must be stored in darkness or they will start to photosynthesize. Green chlorophyll under the skin signifies the presence of toxic glycoalkaloids so if not stored properly, spuds have to be thrown out. Nobody can afford this kind of waste. Storage of spuds at home is a problem. In the tiny houses and apartments sold to us during the past few decades, nobody factored in storage of vegetables in a small domestic fridge. Somebody needs to design a spud container which can live on a balcony or outside the back door in the shade. It ought to admit no light, but be well ventilated, and have perforations at the bottom in case rain gets in. It could double as a seat in warm weather. It might even have castors. It could have two or three storeys/tiers with spuds at the bottom (door opening to the front like the old coal scuttle) and a tier on top for other roots like carrots, turnips etc. A top tier could house brassicas and onions. When the busy family comes home in the evening, having collected kids from day-care, veggies are already on site since the weekly shop or box delivery, and ready to go. If we don’t find a way for urban dwellers to store spuds properly, they will remain the staple diet of those who grow them, who live on the land and will only feature occasionally in the urban diet. Where’s the future in that?
I guess what I’m saying here is that the knowledge, discernment and love of potatoes which used to be handed down “ó ghlún go glún” (from one generation to another) by the sharing of meals- preparation, consumption, tidying up- is gone. Sadly,in our contemporary culture value is not conferred on spuds by the transcendental poetry of Patrick Kavanagh (Spraying the Potatoes) or Seamus Heaney (Digging). Spuds get their bad reputation from paddy-whackery, and ignorance. Many a teenager gets her dietary advice from her school friends , who malign the noble spud with a frightening calorific reputation, and ignore its vitamins and minerals. Rice, pasta, couscous, bulghur have all elbowed their way into our diet to the extent that toddlers demand them, because they’re used to them. No mum or dad will come in after a hard day’s work to have a battle at the dinner table, followed by a toddler waking during the night because of hunger. It’s a no-brainer. So education of the palate has to start as early as possible. How many families buy supplemental Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 for children and Potassium for older people not knowing that the humble spud is rich in these vitamins and minerals?
I’d love to see an ad campaign based on the Mediterranean way of eating…. have a look at Fellini movies….family gatherings, toddler on Granny’s lap, being spoon fed something delicious while further down the table, a young couple in love are feeding each other the same thing. The old Kerrygold ads with a wink and a nudge at the end would serve for inspiration….as our economy gets worse, we’ll need entertaining ads on the TV and websites to amuse us and to talk about. A proper ad campaign would deal with the seasonality of the spud, the different varieties, and the pure pleasure of including them as a food. “ They would make a grown man cry” I once heard a man say, in delight, on tasting the first new potatoes of the year.
Spuds tick all the right boxes- nutritious, easy to cook (if you know how), delicious, versatile (millions of ways for preparing them), they complement everything else we eat in Ireland, good bioavailable starch with a good calorie count- the main calories being added by the butter/cream etc we add to them. Their low carbon footprint is exemplary.
Given our current financial problems as a nation, we need to grow as much at home as we can. A recent visit to the Churchill War Rooms museum in London revealed all their inspiring postcards and slogans to keep them self sufficient as much as possible in WW2. We’re going to need all that help, and more, once we hear what our Minister for Finance has to say on Budget Day next week. All the inspiration is there…www.giyireland.com, www.bordbia.ie, lots of cookbooks, websites and too many TV cooking programmes to mention. Ask your Mum, your Granny, your Aunt, your Friends, Workmates and Neighbours. They all have the Knowledge and will share it. Then get off the sofa, and do it.
We grew three varieties on our little potato patch this year, Colleen (early), British Queens (early main crop) and Cara (main crop). All were distinctive and delicious and we enjoyed doing it. Such huge reward for so little work! We had the last of the Caras for Thanksgiving Dinner last week, since my sister was home from the US.
And so much to be thankful for.