If spuds could speak, what would they say?
Would they surprise (most of) us and paraphrase Muhammad Ali thus: “It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as we are.” Swap the boxing ring for the vegetable box and potatoes – like Ali – might just be greatest thing you could hope to find there. Really. A heavyweight amongst food crops, the potato is the world’s most widely grown vegetable; it has been a feeder of nations – not least our own – and is a champion performer in the kitchen, where (if you’re anything like me) you may find it hard but to admire its great range of culinary moves.
And yet humble is the word we most often reach for when we feel the need to attach an adjective to the potato. It’s not that it’s entirely inaccurate as descriptions go – potatoes, with their unshowy, clay-covered appearance, have, throughout their history, often been viewed as a lowly food of the poor – but the fact is that there are a great many other ways in which to characterise our national tuber.
I’ll grant that banning the use of the word ‘humble’ in reference to potatoes might be somewhat extreme (not to mention impossible), but descriptors like mighty, noble, beautiful even – these we might well add to the humble mix, as indeed the new Boxty House logo suggests.
And nowhere will you find greater eloquence in describing matters of the potato than in the work of the poet Seamus Heaney, who passed away earlier this week. He had an immense talent for elevating the ordinary with his words, and poems such as ‘At a Potato Digging‘ are ones by which both we – and spuds – are truly humbled.
The obligatory spud shot:
potatoes getting their grow on under glass this weekend at the Ballymaloe Cookery School
The Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine should come with a health warning: attending this event may leave you lost for words. This turns out to be a somewhat debilitating state of affairs when faced with the prospect of scraping together a few Spud Sunday syllables, which come to you here in a delayed Monday form (for which delay said LitFest can also be blamed). It is also testament to the world class calibre of this weekend’s line up which – with a Madhur Jaffrey here, a Jancis Robinson there and a Claudia Roden seemingly everywhere – gathered together the great and the good of food and wine writing and served a beguiling pick and mix of demos, tastings, walks and talks in the beautiful surroundings of Ballymaloe. With topics ranging from foraging to fermentation to food writing itself, there was no shortage of stimulation for both creative and digestive juices, and I expect I’ll be digesting what I’ve seen and heard for quite some time to come.
Darina Allen watches as Madhur Jaffrey seasons potatoes
for Aloo Gobi
And of course (before you ask) there were spuds. Whether it was learning from Madhur Jaffrey the secrets of Aloo Gobi (which she described as a most beloved North Indian dish) or applauding Matthew Fort as he decried the use of humble to describe what is, after all, the most noble of vegetables, there were spud references aplenty. For those, it seems, I am never at a loss.
Who knew there was quite so much poetry written on the subject of potatoes?
This matter was drawn to my attention by Wal, who very thoughtfully supplied me with his slightly amended version of this gem, which appeared in An Anthology of the Potato, a collection of potato poems published in 1961 for the Irish Potato Marketing Company.
We praise all the flowers that we fancy
Sip the nectar of fruit ere they’re peeled,
Ignoring the common old tater
When, in fact, he’s King of the Field.
Let us show the old boy we esteem him,
Sort of dig him up out of the mud;
Let us show him he shares our affections
And crown him with glory — The Daily Spud
I think I can guess which line he amended and I blush.