The Art of Peeling Potatoes

 

 

A very tall Sicilian man, wearing a Speedo, lying on the pebbled beach of Postiano, asked me once, “Can you cook?”

“I can make pasta…and microwave things.”

“My God, never say the word microwave to an Italian!”

He also had a doctorate in food science.

Mom was a good cook, she just didn’t like to do it. She made a lot of Stouffer’s so that, “when the kids went away they could always have a meal just like home.” I’d help occasionally, peeling potatoes or some other menial task, but mostly setting the table and doing dishes afterwards.

I mastered pasta in college. I’m surprised I didn’t balloon, but buttered pasta with Parmesan cheese was my dish. I felt like I was cooking when I get the pot out and waited for the water to boil. I felt chefy when I tasted the pasta to see if it was cooked through. And I watched as my five foot one roommate flitted around the kitchen making fried chicken and pot roast.

My first long-term boyfriend was a decent cook. He worked in a bakery making cakes. I watched him make baked chicken, steaks, salmon, tacos, and an assortment of baked goods. I was excellent at washing dishes. And I’d added sauce to my pasta.

Last year I moved abroad and met a five foot tall Chinese girl from San Francisco named Stephanie. She cooked ear—by tongue?—just like her mother. She’d chop bowls full of peppers, chorizo, mushrooms, and a million other ingredients that she had picked up on a whim, throw them all together, add them to rice (she had her own rice cooker, of course) and call it jambalaya. She cooked for us on her birthday.

Before everyone left for Christmas holidays we had a meal together. Stephanie cooked honey sausage and supervised as our flat mate, Felicia, experimented with baked salmon over pasta with pesto sauce. That break, Felicia went home and cooked for her family and her boyfriend. Her boyfriend stood over her shoulder as she pour honey over sausage links, complaining it would be too sweet, then promptly devouring the entire plate. Felicia was hooked and when everyone returned after break for second semester, it was Felicia who started taking the lead. Stephanie stood to the side, pointing and making suggestions, but happy to have inspired a bit of experimentation. I was happy to eat the experiments and wash the dishes afterward.

We started watching Come Dine With Me that semester. With Stephanie and Felicia upstairs cooking away, I thought, “Eh, it can’t be that hard.” Turns out, the hardest part wasn’t going to be the cooking, but getting Felicia to hand over the reigns and stop stepping in when it was technically my night to experiment. If I wasn’t careful, she’d have everything prepped and in the oven before I had the counters clean enough to work on. Side dishes became my focus, as Felicia had decided she was going to master the main dishes, the meats. I did sauté some great green beans though. And that kitchen was some kind of clean.

This year, especially as Thanksgiving crept closer and closer, I thought back to that Sicilian on the beach and decided I was officially closing the microwave door, kicking the others out of the kitchen, and trying something myself. It helped that the first few attempts took place while Felicia was in Italy on vacation. I made teriyaki chicken stir-fry. It had been one of my favorite dishes of Mom’s and she used to save the leftovers for me so I could have them for lunch the next day. It was a success. With the help of my other flat mate, Anna, supervising, I even added peppers. Then I made Stephanie’s honey sausage. I was catching up, slow as honey dripping from a jar.

Thanksgiving rolled around. We’d made our first official Sunday Roast the week before, as practice. It had gone well, and we were hopeful. Felicia scheduled both Wednesday and Thursday down to the hour for baking and cooking. I was delegated most of the vegetable dishes. Felicia doesn’t eat many vegetables. With the exception of Anna’s green bean casserole, I was in charge of corn on the cob, salad, and four different kinds of potatoes and sweet potatoes. I peeled four bags of tubers. I even started to develop calluses by the end of the day. I made my grandmother’s salad and, with tips from Mom, boiled the corn. And in the end, the only thing that went—mildly—wrong was the burning of the marshmallow topping on the sweet potato casserole. But that was easily fixed with a quick scrape and a new bag of mallows.

As I feel I’ve mastered a few basics, and at least a fair amount of veg, I do hope to turn to mains soon. Though I know I will have to fight Felicia for them. It can be so easy to sit back and let her run around the kitchen, but I do envy that sense of accomplishment she beams as she sets food on the table and watches us all gobble it up. Soon I’ll set her to dish duty. I have plans for a crock pot—thank you Mom for the Christmas present—that will make it easier to sneak in a meal while Felicia is at work, and surprise everyone when they return to a flat smelling of roasting beef, gravy, chopped carrots, and of course, potatoes.

 

 

Sarah Veeder

 

 

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