Cultural Differences Over the Humble Potato

MY French husband and I do not perceive the potato the same way. Recently we visited the Kr"uller-M"uller Museum in the Netherlands, and looking at Van Gogh's ``The Potato Eaters,'' I realized that the potato was proof of our different cultures. Pierre stared at the dark painting as intensely as if he were looking at the ``Last Supper.'' I skipped over it, thinking how strange such a solemn gathering around a pan of potatoes.

Coming from two cultures and two sides of the ocean, we have tried - over 30 years of marriage - to bridge our differences. And sometimes the smallest things, like the potato, have been the peskiest.

When I grew up in a family of four in New York, we ate at the most 20 potatoes a week. When Pierre grew up in his family of 12 in northern France, he tells me, they ate 320 each week.

During the first years of our marriage, I found this simple and quaint. I would cheerfully peel four or five potatoes every day. Boiled, scalloped, mashed, or browned, I complied. I never could find ones that baked properly.

And when we moved to Brussels, I even French-fried them as my Belgian neighbors did. But by the time we moved to Italy with three young children, I was beginning to feel the strain of peeling up to 20 potatoes every day. I suggested that in Italy we should do as the Italians do and eat pasta instead.

Then our fourth child was born and for Mother's Day Pierre handed me a large and heavy gift-wrapped box. He was jubilant.

I unwrapped it. It was an electric potato peeler! Pierre remembered how easy it was at his mother's, where a potato peeler was permanently installed below the kitchen sink. I had first thought it was a garbage disposal and stuck orange peels down it. My mother-in-law told me it was not a garbage pail but a potato peeler.

Her machine could take a dozen potatoes at a time, and in three minutes it supposedly peeled them. It would spin, the potatoes would swirl against the abrasive sides, water would wash off the dirty peels, and when it stopped and the trapdoor opened at the bottom, out rolled 12 spotted potatoes. Each one would then have to be cleaned by hand, with a paring knife to get rid of the spots and the eyes. And if ever the three minutes lasted too long, the potatoes disappeared, all peeled and washed away, even the spots and the eyes.

In Italy, Pierre had found a smaller version for me. It did not attach below the kitchen sink, but stood on the counter or the kitchen table. It could take up to six potatoes and just enough water to cover them. Then when it was turned on, the machine would start to jump and skip and dance around the kitchen, spouting water everywhere. After three minutes, the potatoes still looked the same, but not the floor.

I thanked Pierre and used it faithfully. It was the intention that counted.

But when we moved to America for one year, with still another child, I hinted that there might not be room for the potato peeler. In fact I left it with my Italian neighbor as a souvenir of her French and American neighbors.

Once in the States, I put my foot down. No more potatoes for a year! I told Pierre that we didn't grow them, that they were too expensive, that I had no place to store them.

Every now and then, when he kept asking for a pot-au-feu, with chunks of beef, onions, carrots, and lots of potatoes, I would buy little white peeled ones in tin cans. They were awful. But I was the one at home, taking care of the five children, and I said no to potatoes.

Then we moved to Switzerland, having decided that we managed our biculturalism better in a neutral country. For one year Pierre had been blaming me for everything he didn't appreciate in the States, like the lack of potatoes. And I remembered doing the same thing each summer vacation at his parents' home in the French Alps - once the local color, including the electric potato peeler, had worn off.

Now in neutral Switzerland, I discovered frozen French fries. It was so simple that we went back to eating potatoes, but only French-fried potatoes. They were already peeled and cut. All I had to do was put them in hot oil for a couple of minutes. The children loved them, but Pierre said they didn't have the same taste as the ones he remembered, the unfrozen ones, the ones I made once upon a time in Belgium. I took it in my stride. After all, he was a minority, and he wasn't cooking for seven people, soon to be eight.

And so our sixth child arrived and for Mother's Day, Pierre gave me another special gift. It wasn't as large as the last special Mother's Day gift, and it seemed to weigh nothing. I couldn't guess.

It was probably wrapped up in pretty pink paper with a pink ribbon. I don't really remember. I only remember the contents, a box of instant mashed potatoes.

After 15 years of marriage and six children, my husband had given me a box of potato flakes for Mother's Day! I wanted to throw the whole box at him. But the children were all watching and waiting to taste their mother's mashed potatoes.

Soon afterward, as I was alternating frozen French fries and instant mashed potatoes, our oldest son introduced us to his first girlfriend. She was French and went to the same high school. Her father was a farmer, a potato farmer. He harvested 600 tons of potatoes each year!

We met her parents. We even became friends. They had six children, as we did. Our children would play together and their favorite playing place was the potato hangar, where at the end of each summer 600 tons of potatoes were stored. There were mountains of them. The children would climb them, like bumpy brown haystacks.

Often we would go for dinner at their farm and there'd always be a platter of potatoes. Pierre would let himself be coaxed into refilling his plate. Our friends wouldn't believe him when he said he didn't often eat potatoes at home.

Together they'd talk potatoes all evening. Our farmer cultivated four varieties. Pierre learned to recognize them by taste. I never had enough of an appetite. And when we went home, we'd invariably be given a 10-kilo bag of Pierre's favorite variety that evening.

Now, some 10 years later, I can smile about it - the electric potato peeler, the box of instant flakes, the girlfriend, and the 600 tons of potatoes each summer. Pierre and I are again almost alone. Only our sixth child is still home with us.

So I've gone back to cooking a few normal, unfrozen, unpowdered potatoes from time to time for my French husband. Maybe it's because he has finally learned to peel them with me. Or maybe it's because I finally bought a second peeling knife.

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