Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fall Break - Potato Harvest

A Nod to The Harvest: Potatoes, Potatoes, Potatoes

I have an affinity for potatoes – both in the ground and on the table. Now I’m aware potatoes are a stereotypical Idaho, and poor man's, food, one that kept the people who literally lived off the land alive during some of the darkest days of Irish history, but I am an Idaho girl, thus my roots are their roots - Russet Potatoes, that beautiful fruit from the earth.

There is no downplaying the power of an Idaho spud. Potatoes, and the elements that affect these gems, still remain the mitigating factor in Idaho life. In fact, my life revolved around a potato’s life: public schools in Southeastern Idaho were empty for two weeks every October. This time of year was officially called “Potato Harvest,” although we lovingly referred to it as “Spud Harvest.” 

Teenagers worked on the combines (emphasis on the first syllable) sorting potatoes as they came up from the ground and across a conveyor belt. Junior high, and sometimes elementary age, kids earned less than twenty-five cents for every fifty pound bag they filled with potatoes, no rocks in those bags, and hand-picked from the ground that had been tilled so the potatoes lay bare. Those of us who were city kids often worked for our parents in their businesses during this time of year. My father’s restaurant, Walkers Family Restaurant, was a hopping place anytime, but particularly during the harvest; Dad needed all the help he could get, so I worked for fifty cents an hour peeling carrots, scrubbing potatoes, trimming radishes, cleaning tables, and running the cash register. I was happy to get back to school when the harvest ended. My friends and I were happy to have money in our pockets for school clothes, the drugstore ice cream, and fun with friends. 

Our church had a welfare farm, a multi-acre field that yielded a grand harvest of potatoes. In the fall the church families would gather again at the fields and pick these potatoes, by hand. No combines here. We wore brown jersey gloves, towels, bandanas, or diapers around our faces and necks, and layers and layers of flannel shirts. At lunch time we would gather at the church and eat a meal made by the women in the congregation, then head back to the field to pick spuds until dark. We would rise the next morning, stretch out the sore muscles, and do it again. It took a couple of days to harvest the church farm’s potatoes.

In the spring, the potato cellars (A-framed storage units built partially in the ground and often covered with soil) were empty, except for seed potatoes, used for that season’s crops. As a spring project, the church families would gather at the potato cellar with knives and cut the potatoes into pieces, making sure each piece had at least one eye or seed. These eyes were then planted into the freshly turned dirt, by hand.

Daylight savings time was instigated for the farmers who would rise early, work late, and have the light necessary to get to the fields; my father arrived early in the mornings to get to the restaurant and get the coffee brewing and eggs, pancakes, and breakfast steak cooking for many of these men. While my father ran the restaurants, my mother served her family and neighbors. Often I came home from school to see a kettle of potatoes on the stove cooking – for dinner and what remained for breakfast the next morning and for baking later the next day. 

If I ever had a moment free from homework, even when the Harvest was over, my father would pull me into the restaurant to peel carrots and potatoes. I tried, oh I tried, over the years to peel potatoes, but even now my eyes itch, my hands and arms break out in hives, and I sneeze until I cannot breathe. I was absolved from raw potato duties, but not with honor. My job would then turn to peeling boiled spuds.

Dad worked through the evening, with farmer’s stopping by for a cup of coffee slice, a slice of pie, and a talk crops and cattle prior to heading home for supper.  He kept the lights on and the coffee hot until 2 am some nights/mornings. It wasn’t unusual for the cattle ranchers and potato farmers to work through meal time, stop in at the bar for a drink or two, and talk the original stock market with anyone who would listen – usually another farmer or the bar tender. After unwinding, these men would meander down a block to “the café” for a cup or two of coffee and a bite to eat before getting in the pickups and on the road for home. Then Dad would close up shop and hurry home for a few hours sleep before starting all over again, earlier, at times, than the farmers who rose at the crack of dawn to begin their watering turn.

Potatoes were plenty at home. I can see my Idaho mother baking potatoes wiped with shortening and wrapped in foil; making bread, with a handful of dried potato flakes added for flavor; I smell potato donuts – spud nuts – frying as I walked into the kitchen, home from school and starving. I can hear Grandma’s red-handled potato peeler flicking the skins off the potatoes prior to boiling a kettle full for mashed potatoes in the winter and yummy potato salad in the summer, served wherever Grandpa happened to be grazing cattle. Grandma’s worn, chipped, beige and pink, ceramic potato bowl is a prized possession that can still only be filled with potato salad. I have eaten potatoes chipped, mashed, scalloped, au gratined, hashed, souped, baked, double-stuffed, twice-baked , dutch-ovened, candied, fried, even raw, with gravy, cottage cheese, sour cream, ketchup, ranch dressing, fry sauce, chicken noodle soup, to top. Just recently potatoes were the main course of our Sunday dinner. Scott still can’t figure out why my family makes volcanoes or dams with their plate full of potatoes and then fills the void with gravy – but then, he’s not from Idaho.

I prefer my potatoes simple, home-baked, lathered in butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and there isn’t another potato on the planet that can measure up to the flakiness and versatility of an Idaho Russet potato. Potatoes – not spuds – that term is meant only to be used by those whose lives are intertwined with the potato vines. 

Contemporary Potato Harvest

Potato tune sung by singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler

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