Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Potato Story

My mother came from the foot hills of the Appalachians, in the corner of Virginia’s New River Valley, shrouded in mountain fog, in arcane smoke full of specters and ghosts. Depression Era Virginia of my mother’s youth was just another plague or pestilence for the people of the territory. Sure, they’d been American born for two generations, a clear 60 years; but these pasty, freckled, Irish Scots had only traded fen for holler, bagpipes for fiddles, proud songs of revolt for murder ballads. They carried charms to ward of fairies and other pissed off mountain spirits. They carried scars from the Civil War. They lost an entire generation at Gettysburg, 400 miles away. Generations passed and the fables of terror were recounted in those flimsy houses built during each city’s little boom, when the Company came to town, and then became the town. The ghost story each mother told her child, the boogie man always, was the famine of 1843.

Not when what little they had was laid asunder by the Union marching home, savage w/ reckless energy. Not when raw Hell had unleashed @ King’s Mountain, when Ferguson took a bullet in the head and every man in the shadow of the Blue Ridge claimed responsibility for that aim being so true. Not when they Tutulo and Powhattan tribes agreed that these white people had no right to their sacred ground and took their revenge, not discriminating between women and children. No, it was always the famine of 1843.

It was in Ireland. The blight had taken the crops. When the crops failed the landlords came and each family was put out, one by one, until the Crown took all the ruined land. Pushed out of Ireland they came to the Virginia colonies, carrying w/ them the potato that failed them.

My mother’s grandmother, Mom Weaver, would always pause at this part of the story and point out that her family (which is to say her father’s side of the family) came from Scotland, and had not been put out. They were not vagabonds, her kit and kin.

They had come to the mountains to pull coal from the ground, each day losing a little more light. They had gone into the mines and carried out the coal for the electricity they could not afford. They had seen their savings disappear as the banks crumbled in 29. Still Mom Weaver only talked about the famine, as if it were a catch-all.

Each potato, she would say, was a kind of miracle.
“So much, you see, can go wrong”.
Mom Weaver would turn a potato over and over in her hand, scanning it like a crystal ball as she unwove her story:

“When they come to move you out, with their dogs and their guns and their writs on paper,” her hard Scottish consonants slammed like waves against a breach wall, “it’s the same as when the cold won’t break, the river don’t flow, and the crop dies before the strawberry moon. “

“But a potato, a single potato, can stretch today into tomorrow, and remind you what can come from this cold, hard ground.”

“It ain’t proud but humble. Not fancy but homely. The potato comes to us covered in dirt and sod. You can’t get at it and not take the earth home w/ you under your nails, back beneath your ears, deep in the crease of your skin. So what. Dirty hands can be trusted. Ain’t never met a banker w/ dirty hands. Can’t trust one of them.”

“Ain’t complicated. Not like an onion. Spend all day peeling an onion. Just crying and crying. Never getting to anything, each layer thinner than the first, until its nothing but tears and thin sheaf of onion you can see through. Not the potato. No sir.”

“You peel a potato one-two-three. No surprises. What you see is what you get.”

It was at this woman’s elbow that my mother learned to skin a potato, to hold the paring knife confidently, hidden strong in the crease of your palm. She would stand at the table in the kitchen on the South East corner of the house, the side closest to the willow tree, and she would peel potatoes as her grandmother had her separate the peels for later use in moonshine or sourdough starters. She would listen, trapped in the river valley, in that thin walled house, as Mom Weaver would retell the stories of warning, the horrifying recounting of the past.

My mother didn’t tell me about the famine of 49 when she taught me how to skin a potato, to prepare it, to hold the skins to the side (for luck, she said). She would only tell me that you can always count on a potato. It’s humble. It’s pragmatic. My mother smiles a certain way when she says “pragmatic”.

The potato is better than that.

It is better than Mom Weaver’s scarecrow ghost stories. It is better than my mother’s pragmatism.

It is the beginning of everything, a still point. It can become almost anything, swayed by your mood, by your impulse. Its texture is open for discussion. Its meat is a chameleon.

It is the best dinner date you will ever have. The most sublime accompaniment.

It is immediately gratifying in its ability to become. It is ever patient in its process of becoming.

I will hold a potato in my hand and consider its weight, consider its journey, trying to rub the bits of dirt off. I am struck by the great potential of the potato and realize that famine, back there in 49, that was a famine of Hope.

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