Well now, this is embarassing.
There I go, week in, week out, presenting the potato as a force for good when, all the while, there is a dark side to consider. And no, I’m not talking about blighted blackstuff or the evils of french fried excess. No, though I do so grudgingly, I feel I must, in the grand historical scheme of things, include Spud the Usurper in the catalog of culinary villains.
They might look innocent enough, but don’t be fooled…
It was last weekend’s Slow Roots Symposium in Sandbrook House, Co. Carlow, that put my potato-pushing into perspective, specifically the presentation by culinary arts students from the Cork Institute of Technology of a paper entitled: A Study of Irish Food Culture before the Arrival of the Potato.
“Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do ‘to make a living.’ For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better.”
Though Micheal Pollan might, I think, have missed the news about this weekend’s Grandmothers’ Day events at Sandbrook House in Ballon, Co. Carlow, I suspect, reading the extract from his forthcoming book, that he would have approved.
The extract paints a dizzying picture of an economic world, spinning ever faster on an axis of relentless specialisation, a process which, at the same time, binds us in a tourniquet of learned helplessness and leaves us hopelessly disconnected from the origins of our food. He articulates the case for loosening those bonds, “making visible again many of the lines of connection” with our greater food system through the medium of cooking (or equally, one might infer, through practising the many other food skills with which our forebears were familiar).
And it is that reclaiming of lost skills and passing on of inherited wisdom that underlie both yesterday’s Slow Roots symposium and today’s Slow Food Ireland family event at Grandmothers’ Day. It seems appropriate, then, to introduce you to winter buttermilk, one old way with food that I have recently discovered, and one which is, to my mind, well worth remembering.
The thing about winter buttermilk is that it is not, in fact, buttermilk at all.
What’s more is that, despite what its name might lead you to believe, winter buttermilk has a dairy content of precisely zero, containing neither butter nor milk nor moo nor cow, but flour and water and – perhaps somewhat inevitably, given my well-documented obsession – spuds. It also (and this is the important thing) makes for a damn fine loaf of soda bread.
I’m not even sure of the name of the storybook – and it’s long out of print by now – but I vividly recall that our all-time favourite tale was the one about Boney Bart. Its official title was “The Thin Cook” and Boney Bart was the eponymous chef who, one day, due to his all-too-thin frame, came to a rather unfortunate end involving a cook-sized mincer.
It was a bit more Roald Dahl than Dr. Seuss but, as kids, we were clearly not averse to a spot of kitchen horror and loved having our Da recount the not-so-happily-ever-after yarn of Boney Bart. There were other stories too – usually relayed from Dad’s familiar armchair position and not always involving a bad end and a mincer – and though we eventually swapped fairy tales for something more grown up, we would always return to hear his stories and, in turn, regale him with our own (or at least to the extent, in later years, that his worsening deafness would allow).
Another year, another growing season and the seeds of my prospective new potato crop
It’s a year to the day since he slipped away and, though we still have lots of stories for him, it’s a bit harder for him to hear us now (yes, even harder than when we had to shout at him on the phone). He loved this time of year, with its lengthening days and promise of new growth and, among other stories, would have been pleased to hear that this week saw the planting of my hopeful little crop of potatoes for this year.
And so it is that potatoes go on, and life goes on, and Da’s story is our new favourite tale. Like the story of Boney Bart, it’s one that we will never tire of hearing.