Ways to Worship the Spud

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It is easy to think of potatoes, and fortunately for men who have not much money it is easy to think of them with a certain safety. Potatoes are one of the last things to disappear, in times of war, which is probably why they should not be forgotten in times of peace.

M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf

From its homeland in the Andes, the potato traveled hundreds of miles in a wooden ship to Europe. The world came to worship its flexibility. The root now has a loyal following. Humanity worships The Spud in many ways, but four methods stand as the most popular: 

  • Wrapping its skin in foil for a 350 degree sauna (baked)
  • Smashing and stirring its insides within a bowl (mashed)
  • Skinning (optional), slicing, then dipping the slices in hot oil (frying)
  • Scraping and frying its scattered pieces (hash)

For the past summer, I initially used the potato as a way to defeat hunger. Then, after my tastebuds became enslaved, I never ate a dish without some form of the plant. Near-starvation or just being a picky-eater, my summer diet was the following:

  • Vegetable with potatoes
  • Rice with potatoes
  • Tofu with potatoes.
  • Potatoes. Just potatoes.

My face became a collection of sharp lines towards summer’s end, but The Spud saved my wardrobe from becoming drapes on my body. I am obligated to be its Moses, spreading its message to the masses. Baked, mashed, fried, or hashed — how we prefer to worship The Spud speaks to our current state.e. 

Baked

To prepare The Spud for its sauna, a cook must do the following:

  1. Wash The Spud.
  2. Use a square of aluminum foil as wrapping (Although not a necessity, this allows for more even cooking.).
  3. Put the potato in an oven for at least 15 minutes.

A six-year old could make a baked potato. A high school acquaintance of mine told me how he would cook for himself and his siblings baked Spud despite just learning how to read. Along with the burn of boiling water from Ramen and the smell of burnt toast, he and other neglected children across the United States probably know the feeling of hot foil stinging their fingertips. 

I waited until I was seventeen to learn the “Ouch!” of 365 degree aluminum. House rules forbade me for cooking for myself in fear I would burn the house down. Not until my grandmother’s death was I allowed to cook beyond Poptarts for myself. The day after making Mac ‘N’ Cheese so burnt the noodles stained the pot bottom, I followed up with a baked potato I cooked until the skin raisined. Hindsight tells me taking a bathroom break at the 15-minute mark was a bad idea. 

The most common method of eating an American baked Spud is to split the root open, carve a bit of space, and dump in the Holy Trifecta of U.S. spices: butter, pepper, and salt. Some of my broke comrades and I share the experience of having to save our good spices for more important meals. A dash of near-plastic bacon bits? Yes. Some crumbled croutons to soak up the abundance of butter? Perhaps. But no wise poor man wastes garlic and paprika and cumin and whatever else for, sorry Spud, solidified starch water.

Those who enjoy the baked potato are, overall, simple individuals. They ask little from life. 

 However, cooks who consider the baked potato to be their favorite recipe and are not six or cooking newbs are beyond mere lovers of minimalism. They have dangerously low energy levels. Gordon Ramsey would laugh if a Twitter follower requested his review of a baked potato recipe. What is there to review? The foil wrap method? The crisp of the root’s skin? The bacon bits to butter ratio in side the potato? Some like to gussy the baked Spud up, but no amount of creativity can transcend the meal’s simplicity. 

A depressed 21-year old me thought about spicing up my baked Spud one day. I regretted the one piece of garlic I let flutter into the valley of vegan butter,pepper, and (perhaps too much) salt. As I spooned The Spud’s guts into my mouth, I still looked forward to the flake of excitement that escaped spice shaker. 

Mashed

The steps:

  1. Boil several of the same incarnations of The Spud.
  2. Mash or pulverize — depending on the frustrations that need to be vented.
  3. Add spices.
  4. Mash again (Do not pulverize. That would be excessive at this point.) or whip them.

The civilized use a “potato masher” to accomplish the initial taming. The uncivilized, like myself, use fists. My recipe calls for taking a sturdy bowl to the floor and getting a boxing lesson in. The anger of the impoverished has started revolutions. I couldn’t channel my anger for the greater good, so beating mushy, glistening vegetables had to suffice. 

Some add milk (of a sort) after taking care of all the lumps for extra creaminess. Some may add spices while others should add spices. After spending time pouring punches into a dish, rewarding it with the fluttering sprinkle of garlic, paprika, and hot pepper is the least anyone or I could do.  Just be warned: you cannot rectify too much seasoning. Potatoes too hard to mash? Boil them again. Too many clumps? Mash some more. Add too much seasoning? Doomed. No one wants to eat a mushy pile of herbs and spices and despite what Google search results say, water will not “balance it out.”

For those who are afraid of over-seasoning, they can use the instant powder recipe. The American Spice Trinity often is included already. No extra spices needed if boredom is that night’s chosen flavor. I rarely consume instant potatoes despite them being a staple at food pantries. Besides me being lactose intolerant (and most instant mashed potatoes including milk), I can taste the fibers of the box.  

The flavor of cardboard is not empowering. My strength rattling a bowl against the floor is. 

Fried

General Recipe:

  1. (Optional) Skin the Spud
  2. Slice The Spud into finger-length bits
  3. (If frying via baking, toss the bits in seasoned oil.)
  4. Dip the bits into boiling seasoned oil OR bake them on 350 degrees for 30 mins, rearrange the parts after 15 mins.

Fried potatoes are perhaps the quickest, more merciful death for the Spud. The process to make them reminds me of a dance: slide (the skin off), chop (the body into bits), shake (the fragments in a bowl), and bob (the bits in hot grease). Forget the Monster Mash. Let’s do the Fried Spud.

Whether frying via the over or on the stovetop, making the perfect fried Spud is a delicate process. Good fries don’t have just salt on them. They must be crispy on the outside yet soft on the inside. 

Just like mashed potatoes, fries can be found pre-made and pre-seasoned. But again, making them from scratch instead of a container is the most rewarding. 

In the summer of 2016, I met one of my best friends. She lived on a diet of Nutella and Oreos. I wanted to help her expand her diet. After several attempts of perfecting my recipe throughout that summer, I found the right proportion of garlic, pepper, and seasoning salt to toss my Spud wedges in. That night, I had spent about two hours cutting the potato into uniform parts, rationing the seasonings, and observing their progress in the oven. A labor of adoration for the Spud and for her and for us. Once I finished, I invited my friend to try the fries. She loved them. In the midst of a few satisfied “Mmhmm”s and grunts shared in the kitchen, a deeper bond grew between her and me.

The more complicated the potato form, the deeper the love. 

Hash

That parallelism is why some of the most heartfelt moments are shared over hashbrowns. The hashed Spud is the most complicated version of The Spud. There’s no basic recipe. For years, I thought hashbrowns just were made from shredded, fried, and shaped-up potatoes. Then I visited my college cafeteria. Their hashbrowns were lightly browned cubes. In another turn of events, I made hashbrown spheres one night. I was drunk off Miller High Life and cannot recall the recipe. I do recall biting into each sphere, happy to be alive and to be ingesting too much oil. I also have tasted versions mixed with minced vegetables.
Hashbrowns are undefined, full of flavor and expression. They need more crunch than a fry yet they still need a bit of softness. They need to hold flavor but not hold flavor hostage. Too much flavor and the tongue starts to swell from salt intake.

 I almost have cried eating hashbrowns before. I was in a smelly Waffle House, wishing my life was something brighter than the 3:00am sky. The same roommate I shared wedges with accompanied me to the Waffle House. Drunk and sad, both of us had relationship woes. We needed a bright spot in the darkness we found with our partners. Neither of us remember much of the WaHo encounter. What we do remember is feeling like we found that light in each other as we devoured hashbrowns that had just the right crisp. 

Many of my friends share similar stories. The intricacy of good hashbrowns can lure eaters into a comfort zone. When the hashbrowns are all gone, reality creeps back to the forefront of the mind — until another batch is ordered. 

And I will order another batch of The Spud in whatever form for as long as I need. I have found contentment with its temporariness, its warmth, its infinite ability.