The Great Potato Hunt
By Vern Vander Weide
It was that time of year again, the time when the first hint of fall could be felt in the western Michigan air. The seasonal ritual began with my father diligently perusing the classified ads in the Grand Rapids Press. I knew that meant we (my father, mother and I) would soon be spending evenings and weekends traveling throughout western Kent and Newaygo and Ottawa counties, visiting the numerous farms Dad had marked in the classifieds. Thus would begin the Great Potato Hunt, the annual quest for the Perfect Potato.
Of course, I did not think of this in those grandiose terms back then. I was a mere child. Searching far and wide for the best strawberries, the most luscious blueberries, fresh eggs from a cousin's farm, the ripest cherries, the plumpest peaches and, yes, the super potato was just part of our very ordinary lives. After all, didn’t everybody do that? It was such a common-seeming experience that I never bothered to ask my friends whether they were expecting to spend countless hours in the back seat of their parents’ car while they searched for the Perfect Produce.
Today, this would be, I guess, "locavores." But that word was in no one's vocabulary in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Everyone practiced "locavore." The produce we bought in our grocery stores in the summer had been in the ground just 24 hours earlier and less than 20 miles away. The grocers purchased their produce every morning at the wholesale farmers' market. Every week, my parents visited one of two (sometimes both) retail farmers’ markets throughout the summer and early fall. There one would find everything, depending on where we were in the growing season, from live chickens (no, not for pets) to freshly picked corn. Beyond that, my parents’ "'voring" was as "local" as it could get. Except for a brief hiatus in the early 1950s, my father continued our World War II Victory Garden, so that bib lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, green onions and other delectables were just steps outside our back door.
But back to the search for the Perfect Potato. From the back seat I heard my parents talking about "russets," "Idahoes," "red russets" (or "red" something or other), or other brands of potato, all of which was completely meaningless to me. After extended discussions between my father and farmer after farmer, the Great Decision would be made: we would make the annual purchase (sometimes more than one purchase from different farms) of our winter’s supply of potatoes. The precious find would be brought home and carefully stored in our fruit cellar (along with all the jars containing the canned fruits and vegetables my mother had already prepared).
As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. But I also vaguely remember conversations at dinner, or maybe just before dinner, that seemed to be a continuation of the Great Potato Hunt. But first some important background. We usually ate potatoes that had been peeled, boiled and then served in a form in which the potatoes had been broken up. On Sundays (usually only on Sundays), they would be mashed, as part of our roast chicken or roast beef dinner. The key test of the Perfect Potato came every night in the unmashed form. I don’t remember very much of this conversation; after all, I really did not like potatoes until I got much older, so this conversation about the Perfect Potato was really of no interest to me.
My father would ask my mother how the potatoes "did up" or how they "cooked up." She would say something like "too mealy" or "too wet" and sometimes -- nirvana! -- "very good." Again, this meant nothing to me, but many times since then I have wondered just what the whole potato thing was all about. I’ve asked several persons, including my culinary expert food-writing daughter, what the BIG DEAL is about the potato, but to no avail. (SO not true! Dad never asked me this question! Artistic license, indeed! -- Stephanie) Nobody had been able to explain to me what so preoccupied my Dad.
Last week I visited my 92-year old aunt, my father’s last surviving sibling. I related a much shorter version of the above, and she, of course, nodded knowingly. I asked, "Aunt Win, why did Dad spend all this time looking for potatoes, what’s the difference?" She explained that it depends upon whether the potatoes cooked up "dry" or "wet." "Dry or wet?" I asked. After all, they’ve just come out of a pan of boiling water. How can they be anything other than wet? She said that after the potatoes have been properly boiled and the water decanted (my word, not hers), the cook shakes the pan so as to cause the potatoes to break apart. If the resulting pieces are "wet," that is not good; if the potato easily breaks apart and the resulting pieces are "dry," that is the Perfect Potato.