Kitchen Chores Three: Hurricane Potatoes Change My Mind Again

I'll dig, you gather: A couple days before Hurricane Irene, we harvested the last of our potatoes and roasted four batches just before the power went out.

Although Hurricane Irene passed our region nearly a month ago, it’s hard to shake the memories. The Sag Harbor public works crews are still picking up car-sized piles of tree debris. We lost power for only a few days, although neighbors went without for a week or so, including our Picky, Grouchy Non-Cook friend in East Hampton, who still cooked without power (how’s that for not cooking?).

In our agricultural region, corn and tomatoes and taller crops took a beating from the wind, but fall pumpkin patches, Brassica plantings and ripening wine grapes were mostly unscathed. Blue Moon Fishery in Mattituck lost power for long enough that they had to skip a few important days selling at the Greenmarkets. Upstate, of course, the damage was disastrous, with large numbers of farms losing 100 percent of their crop under water or other flood debris. Loss of roads, power and other nearby supplies has stymied getting the crops that did survive to market. In fact, in New York City next week, farmer-connected restaurants will be raising money as part of Dine Out for Irene, the following week there will be potlucks and dinner parties to raise funds. For anyone inclined to take a day trip and help with your own two hands, there are regular volunteer crews departing from the city.

Among our storm memories are the masses of potatoes that we roasted the night Irene’s swirl hit Long Island. We cut the potatoes into bite-sized chunks (since kids are little people with little hands, mouths and stomachs, they sometimes respond best to little bites; food in balls and other deliberate shapes is one of the earliest lessons that came from Eating with Clio), and cooked four big pans in total, with the last two pans just finishing up as the the power went out and as the oven shut off.

After the power went out, we roasted marshmallows by candle.

We had been harvesting the last of our garden potatoes when the storm was still a couple days away. And with the prospect that the rain might put our potatoes underwater, we decided to dig the whole bunch. (As it were the potatoes didn’t flood–the southerly surge wasn’t so bad here on the northerly side.) It was then that I changed my mind–once again–about kids and kitchen chores. You might recall my curmudgeonly post arguing that kids could make chores messy, inefficient and frustrating. But with time short, I needed all the help I could get. So I dug the potatoes and invited Clio and Cyrus to pick up the potatoes on the surface and put them in a bucket. It’s a gleaning role the kids used to play in this region, going into a field to garner any potatoes missed during the first digging. Clio and Cyrus didn’t get 100 percent of them, but as nutrition education guru Fern Gail Estrow explained to me in a Facebook back and forth, sometimes with kids it’s not so much the end product, but the process.

Not to mention the food memories it generates. We ate those roasted potatoes steaming hot before the kids went to bed that night, and we had them again (cold) the next morning, dipped in ketchup and jam and butter. We snacked on potatoes during the days without power, and got to heat up the last bit when the power went back on. Last week, when I was cutting up some of the fresh potatoes that remain from the pre-storm harvest, Clio asked me, “Do you remember when we harvested potatoes before the storm?” Yes, I said. “And do you remember when we ate them cold?” Yes.

Digging potatoes is one of the most satisfying garden activities there is, delivering the same shot of smile-making serotonin as finding buried treasure. In goes your digging fork, and as you pry backwards, these mysterious mounds miraculously rise to the surface. If the potato stem is still intact, you can carefully pull out the entire plant to reveal hairy roots dangling with spuds like so many Christmas ornaments. Being shadowed by a couple of kid spectators who exclaim in their cute high-pitched voices, “Oooh, look at that one,” and “Goodness gracious,” just makes the chore even better.

Our potato memories from even earlier this summer included an odd ritual developed on the weekly carpool to camp, when I would ask my passengers what was in the farm field we were passing. As we would drive past the Wesnofske fields on Scuttle Hole Road, Clio, Cyrus and their cousin Milla, would shout out “Potatoes!” This continued for the half mile or so that we drove past potato fields with a child occasionally yelling out “Tomatoes!” or “Corn!” as a joke that would crack up the other two kids before they went back to a chorus of “Potatoes!” This habit persisted even until late August when most of those fields had been dug and no potato plants, or potatoes, remained.