Let me tell you about one of the saddest days of my life. It was the day I learned to shun the potato.
You see, everyone has a food that they depend on, a food that they love above all others. Mine was the humble spud. Baked, mashed, roasted, stuffed: they had ensconced my heart deep within their starchy hold, melting it like a pad of butter. I was smitten. They were like a hot bath for the stomach, a woollen blanket for the mind. There was no sadness, no heart break, no injury too deep to be softened by the potato’s warm embrace. Life simply could not be endured without them.
I had just turned thirteen. I was at that tender age when growth has pulled you out of your features, and not quite settled you back into them again: I was awkward. But I believed, if I could just find the right clothes, wear the right make-up, talk the right way – I could be just like Jane, my brother’s girlfriend
Jane had streaks of blonde and copper in her hair and green eyes as big as saucers. She wore glittery blue eye shadow and bright red lipstick: everyone said she was like a movie star. She listened to Ani Difranco and she read Shakespeare sonnets while she waited for my brother to take her out, her legs folded under her like a swan. I adored her. I had my hair cut just like hers, and when she painted her fingernails blue, I painted mine blue as well. I hung on her every word. I thought if I did all of these things, I could become graceful and sophisticated like she was, instead of the gawky insecure adolescent I felt.
When my Brother handed me the phone one day and told me Jane wanted to speak with me (me?), I nearly fainted. I want to take you out to lunch she said. I almost dropped the phone. Sure, sure I managed to stammer, I think I’m free on Friday. Of course I was free on Friday. I would’ve cancelled an appointment with the Pope if I’d had too. I counted down the days, the hours, the minutes. Mom took me shopping to buy a new dress, and she even agreed to let me buy a tube of red lipstick - just like Jane wears, Mom - if I promised to wear it only on special occasions.
And then the day came. I waited in the hallway with my little purse on my lap, the one tube of lipstick and my Hello Kitty wallet inside, trying to look as grown up as I could muster. I didn’t feel grown up. I felt like a child in a grown up costume. But when I heard the rumble of her little car whip into the driveway, it hardly mattered. I went running out, nearly tripping in the heels I had borrowed from my Mom, before slipping into the passenger’s seat. I was in Jane’s car. I was going to lunch with Jane.
She took me to The Pier – a fancy restaurant on the water where the napkins are folded into swans and there is more silverware than you know what to do with. We sat down and the maître d’ handed us the menus: he winked at me as he gave me mine. I felt dizzy with the glamour of it. Me and Jane. Jane and I. I was practising in my head how I would say it, when I told my friends about it later. Drinks? The waiter asked. I’ll have a water with a lemon, she said. Of course, water with lemon. Yes me too, I said. She looked up at me and smiled.
Now what shall I have? she said, skimming over the menu. What looks good to you? I looked down. There was some sort of fish platter that was too expensive. A sirloin steak with grilled onions. A salad with cranberries and pecans. I think I’ll get a cup of soup, I said, and a baked potato with sour cream. I love potatoes. She looked over her menu at me again. It was a kind look, but a disappointed look, as though I had let her down in some way. I panicked. But I’m not really sure yet I said, desperate to undo whatever I had done. What had I said? Where had I gone wrong?
I used to love potatoes she said, retreating behind her menu, when I was your age. Your age. The words stung. But you’ll have to be careful when you get older. They’re terrible for you, you know.
There and then, I shunned the potato. I vowed I would never eat another potato in my whole life. I did not want to be my age. I didn’t want to be my anything. I wanted to be like Jane. I ordered a salad and avoided the bread, like she did. We sipped our water with lemon and gazed out over the bay. She asked me questions about school and told me that everything would be better once I started high school. Everything changes then, you’ll see. She told me she would put in a good word for me with her friends, and that when I turned fourteen, she’d take me out to my first party. As we were leaving she said, that lipstick looks great on you. You should wear it more often. I beamed all the way home.
That night, Mom made twice baked potatoes for dinner: my favourite. I told her I wasn’t hungry. She arched her eyebrow at me. I’m still full from lunch I said. Oh I see. You had The Pier baked potatoes, now mine aren’t good enough. She didn’t understand. I didn’t explain. I shut myself in my room while they ate and the sweet buttery scent wafted in, enveloping me. I thought of Jane. I used to love potatoes, when I was your age. I could almost taste them. And then I laid down on my bed, my stomach gurgling, and I felt that somehow, from that moment forward, things could never be as they were before. I felt I had lost something.
And I had.
Thankfully, I have since been reunited with my old love the potato, and now we shall never part ways again. There is still nothing I love more when I need a little comfort. I've been inspired by all the delicious spring greens coming up - nettle and wild onion - and I thought they would lend themselves very nicely to my old favourite. Feel free to substitute other greens - kale, chard, spinach or scallions are all good choices.
- 6 small or 3 larger sized potatoes, preferably a baking variety such as russet
- 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
- 1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced into half moons
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ cup milk of choice
- 2 heaping tablespoons of crème fraiche
- 2 cups chopped nettle greens (use caution and gloves while handling or you'll sting yourself!)
- ¾ cup grated cheddar
- 1 large handful wild onion, wild garlic or ramp greens, sliced thinly
- a good pinch of salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Rinse the potatoes well and place on a baking tray. Sprinkle well with salt (this will give you a nice crisp skin) and prick each one once with a fork. Place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes to an hour (depending on size), or until a fork easily pierces through to the middle.
- Let the potatoes cool to room temperature and then slice each one in half. Scoop the flesh out into a bowl, leaving a 1/4 inch layer clinging to the skin or else your shells will fall apart on you.
- Turn the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Heat the butter or olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the leek and garlic and cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add the the scooped out potato innards, the milk and the crème fraiche and use the back of a wooden spoon or a fork to mash everything up. I like to leave a little chunk to my my mash, but you can take it as creamy and smooth as you want.
- Add the nettle and wild onion greens, 1/2 cup of the cheddar, and salt and pepper to taste and stir well to combine.
- Fill each of the potato shells with the filling and place on a baking tray. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup of cheddar over the top, along with a light dusting of salt and pepper.
- Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, and then enjoy piping hot.