I read and reviewed Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter last year, and it’s a book that has stayed with me, heart and soul. (I said it then, and I’ll say it again, read this book!) The entire time I was reading it, I wanted to be eating, but, whereas my murder mystery might call for a cup of tea and a plate of crumpets, or my thriller might call for an ice-cold Diet Coke and a bowl of Miss Vickie’s Salt and Vinegar chips, Hamilton’s book made me want to get up and craft something amazing. I actually got up out of my comfy reading chair and my immersive reading of her book to make myself a glass of red wine and a plate of olives and artichokes and cheese after reading about her time in Italy. I wanted the whole multi-sensory immersion!
It was her description of a simple boiled potato, though, that really rocked my world. Hamilton’s youthful trek through Europe was done on less than a shoestring budget. She would go for days with little or no food so as to make it to the next city and the next traveller’s cheque. When she arrives in Amsterdam, she feels overwhelmed and defeated by her hunger, her homesickness and her angst about feeling so out of place in so many places, home and away. Then she describes going to a café and eating a simple, salted boiled potato, and it’s a revelation.
There was, as I’d ordered, a cold ham sandwich on good, buttered grainy bread, but it came with a warm salted potato, and a wedge of Gouda that had aged so much that it had gritty, very pleasant granules in it, which at first I thought were salt grains but then realized were crystallized calcium deposits from the milk of the cheese. I ate the little potato right away. Its pale yellow flesh was perfectly waxy, and its skin snapped when I bit into it. I don’t know under what other conditions a simple, salted, warm boiled potato could ever taste as good as this tasted. Probably none.
I think of her experience of this potato so often when I dine out and when I cook. Her sensory recall of the waxy yellow flesh and the skin snapping is my touchstone for mindful and attentive eating. It’s an aspiration to be so attentive and so grateful for simple pleasures, and it’s a mark I miss often, but, if she can write about an ordinary boiled potato in such a reverential way, we owe it to ourselves to pay every bite we eat the attention that it also deserves. She values the appearance, the texture, the taste and the comfort of the humble tuber, and as a newly fledged restaurant owner, she says,
When I came to be actually holding the keys to my new restaurant, wondering what credentials I possibly possessed for owning and operating such a place, I counted knowing hunger and appetite as one of them.
Our most pleasurable memories of dining out do not have to happen on milestone occasions in a trendy restaurant, nor do they have to include high concept plates of flaming or towering whatevers. For me, her boiled potato has come to represent the essential attention, hunger and appetite required to enjoy a wonderful meal.