Picking Potatoes by Tom Motley
Much of the pleasure of gardening is in the anticipation of things to come. This morning I strew straw (really) around the trunks of our tall Yukon Gold and red potato plants, and now anticipate the second picking of the season in a couple of weeks. The other evening, Chef George Brown (Experimental Table), kindly brought his triplets over to help me with the first harvest of said potatoes, to be delivered the next morning to our mutual friend, Chef Robert Lyford at Patina Green, on McKinney’s downtown square. My young garden students made me proud. All three are fast learners when it comes to farm stuff.
The small hands of children are ideal for finding potato-treasure, deep beneath and around the plant’s trunk. I know, having helped my Granddad Motley plant seed-potatoes every Valentine’s Day, and dig for mature spuds in May and June with Grandma. Today, our potatoes are planted in raised beds. With rich compost and soil layers over years of progress, the eager little hands of the Brown siblings easily delved the organic depths, shortly discovering and picking nearly ten pounds of gorgeous yellow and red potatoes. I enjoyed every moment, as each child would occasionally call out, “Tom, this one’s about the size of an egg/golf ball/big rock, should I take it?” Who am I to disappoint such happy workers? Pretty much every potato, small, medium and tiny, got piled into the bucket, with my total approval.
One of the important lessons my child-labor force learned about potatoes is to always respect and protect the Mother plant (not a bad lesson for children to think about, right?). The Brown kids learned that after finding treasure (which always involves jostling the Mother about a bit) you don’t just take the bounty and leave open excavation everywhere! Those holes need to be refilled, and the Mother plant’s trunk needs reinforcement. Becca and I keep straw bales near the potato plants for this very purpose. After any harvesting, straw, leaves, or dirt should be added several inches high around the exposed potato plant’s trunk, in order to support the base, insuring continued growth and production.
While picking the new potatoes, discussion with the triplets turned to upcoming preparation in the kitchen. Basically, the eager and curious palates of the children prompted a dialog about potato recipes. With famous chefs for parents, these kids naturally pay attention to what they eat, how things taste, and how things are prepared. So I told them about my favorite ways to cook the very potatoes we were picking.
Young red potatoes are ideal for ultimate mashing. They almost become liquid. Grandma always called her mashed potatoes “creamed potatoes.” Indeed they were like cream if you didn’t know better. The red potato’s natural softness makes it an easy boiler and rapid roaster. The roasted skin of a red potato brushed in olive oil is a favorite early summer garden treat for me.
My sons always loved my homemade potato chips made with Yukon Golds. The smaller diameter of the yellow gem makes for almost silver-dollar sized chips. Parental tip: potato chips made at home are special. The kids get to see the process, experience the fresh, hot aroma, and eat them warm. The pleasure of the chip is directly related to the labor of preparation and cooking. Chemically-infused retail chips in bags lose their crunchy attraction for children if the kids get a ration of the homemade version on occasion.
We’re growing only Yukon Gold and red potatoes this year, but normally grow Kinnebeck as well, which also thrives in North Texas. I’ve never had a great crop of fingerling varieties, at my farms in Hunt County or Collin.
Growing up in Texas, I was accustomed to endless rows of cotton mostly, then corn, then the infernal Johnson grass that invaded every inch of bare dirt in this part of the country. Texas adolescents and teens spent most of their time in summer not at leisure camps or swimming pools, but attacking Johnson grass stalks one at a time, each youngster armed with a single, sharpened hoe.
My first view of a genuine North Dakota potato field took my breath away. A couple of other young airmen and I had ventured off the base at Grand Forks in an old, borrowed car. We wanted to tour the countryside. We stopped the car under a rare shade-tree. It took several minutes for a Texas boy to realize what he was seeing. Row after row of potato plants stretched in all directions, to the horizon and beyond. No mountains, no hills, no buildings, fences or telephone poles broke the vastness of that one crop’s landscape. The vividness of the sea of countless green leaves was even more striking as they gently swayed against the backdrop of a crystal-clear, cloudless blue sky.
In the Hill County of my childhood, everybody grew potatoes for the family in their own humble gardens. The potatoes were a staple of farm meals, stored in root cellars, and canned for use on future, frigid winter days. It simply astounded me to realize that northern prairie folks actually made a living out of growing potatoes, to be sold in cities far away. I felt naïve, and I was.