Saturday, July 2, 2005

parable of the potatoes

I confess to being a food fascist. Not the kind who tells people what kind of food to eat, but the one who can't bear to throw food away and tries to find a use for everything before it goes bad. It's not so bad when I'm home and can keep better track and encourage my two family members on the things that they might like to eat, but I get into trouble when I am on vacation and we're ready to go home and none of my extended family members (who bought most of this excess food) wants to carry any of it home with them. So it's triage for me—deciding what can fit into my cooler and what must go into the trash. At least at home I can compost the remains or feed it to the worms, but I'm not going so far as to pack the car with smelly food for the compost.

I should be thanking all of the others for their leftovers instead of complaining; I just feel sad about the wasted food that goes into the trash.

Every year for the past seventeen years my family has taken a vacation together spread across three or four cabins on a lake in southeastern Ohio. It's a venue that everyone from old to young enjoys. The first night we always eat at the lodge restaurant and the rest of the week each family takes a turn to cook in the cabins.

On the last night of the week, we have leftover night. In the last few years I've taken over organizing just because that's my thing - it gives me great satisfaction to make good out of leftovers. My aunt wanted to take us all to the lodge for another dinner, but to me and at least one of my sisters, that would be a shame. I said it would be a sin! to waste all this food. My Irish aunt calls missing Mass a sin. Each to her own.

Food is often connected with religion: just for starters the bread and wine of the Catholicism I've been trying to leave behind; nevertheless I appreciate the potent metaphor of the deep dark association with body and blood. We do ultimately eat our ancestors (or somebody else's). My own home-grown religion is grounded in the very soil that nourishes the seeds, and the whole cycle in which there is no waste, thanks to compost. Anything that we let go bad goes to the compost, so there is less guilt then. "Waste not want not", my mother always told me, and it sunk in deeper than she might have expected; eventually, I think I now believe it more than she does, and appear a bit fanatical. My daughter finds it a foolish saying, but I bet it will sink into her too. She's already picked up my nutritional ideas (though she was very fussy from age 5 to 14 or so, similar to my own fussy food age); also she's starting to pick up on the environmental value of my aversion to cars, and encourages her friends to walk whenever possible. I suppose what I have to learn is not to preach to people, but to care about their feelings and merely to subtly inspire them. They surely inspire me with their thoughtfulness about many other things for which I am at a loss.

This is the first year that the kids' cabin took a turn to cook—now that the kids are all teenagers and some in their twenties. We've only had a separate cabin for the kids the last two years or so. Since we already had so much food accumulated, we encouraged them to use some of it, but could certainly understand that they wanted to make what they wanted to make. So Mikie got chicken breasts which he marinated in Italian dressing, and barbecued brilliantly even though it started pouring rain. Fortunately he was under some trees and got finished before the leaves became full of water and dropped it all.

My aunt Ethel, who had wanted to bring us to the lodge, had also nevertheless gone grocery shopping earlier in the week when my sister wanted to go after Mass, and she bought ingredients for a rigatoni casserole. Plus she had brought two bags of salt potatoes with her from Syracuse because my Mom raves about it every time she makes it. Just in case.

So we encouraged the kids to use the potatoes and they decided to use the rigatoni too. Jamie came in that day to my cabin, and asked if I had a potato peeler. I told her that there was no need to peel the potatoes—the peel is the best part. Well, she was intending to use the peel; she just had another idea. She and Ricky peeled the potatoes and she cooked up the peels in butter and onions and garlic, and then boiled the potatoes and planned to mash them and add in the potato peels. I respected her creativity and initiative and didn't give her anymore advice though it seemed a lot of work for all those little potatoes. But hey, they don't have much to do while on vacation. And Ricky probably doesn't get involved in the cooking chores too often; so that was his contribution. It beats watching TV! Joey cleaned the dishes that had accumulated over the days in the sink. Rachel put together the salad or made the rigatoni or something. They all contributed.

The kids were doing the final cooking and we were relaxing at happy hour when Aunt Ethel caught wind that they were mashing the salt potatoes. "You don't do that! Didn't you read the directions?!" She got right up out of her chair and went into the kitchen. After the dinner was all ready, we found out that she must have told Jamie to add the salt bag. Well, the salt bag is for adding to the water when boiling the potatoes. The potatoes were already boiled; nevertheless someone added the entire bag of salt to the potatoes. I wasn't there to witness this. I don't think anyone one could do more but peck at the final salty product.

For leftover night, (among many other things) we boiled more potatoes (with no salt!) and added them, lumpily mashed, to the salty potatoes, and eventually the right balance was found and they were most delicious. I just wanted to bring to realization the potatoes that Jamie had intended (and not waste anything, of course.) Ethel did like them in the end, even though they weren't done in the traditional way. Unfortunately there's a hugh amount of them, and I will try to fit them in the cooler and find uses for them at home. Potato pancakes, potato pie with cheese….