Welcome to Potatoland: The dirty, ill-shaped mass of carb is a sweet escape from the madding crowd

My house in the wintry fantasy republic, made of potato MDF and covered in perfumed mash potato veneer, would be home to a canvas print of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Thu 27 Oct 2022, 10:14 PM

Once upon a time, the potato was alien to hamlets like mine. Not just the potato but most kings and queens of vegetables were. The communists had to send ubercool Soviet literature all the way to their comrades in the God’s Own Country to show their wards the shape and size of the potato, the food staple of millions across the world. It took a lifetime to realise the greatest regrets in my life were growing up without the potato on the family menu and without the knowledge that the Vincent van Gogh guy had done a tributary masterpiece called The Potato Eaters in 1885. Such was the gravitas of the dirty, ill-shaped mass of carb.

Villages never had a vegetable shop, so we ate what we grew — things like bitter gourd, melons, beans, okra, brinjal, papaya — in the kitchen garden, where we slogged after school hours. On rare occasions like Onam, Vishu and Makar Sankranti, Mr Potato made a special appearance at vegetable shops that sprang up like mushrooms by the roadside. Honestly, we never knew even the mushrooms that grew unattended around us were edible and a fine dining stuff.

As Indian villages prospered piggybacking on the Gulf petrodollar, the potato and greens of the same ilk found their way to our dinner plates and stayed put albeit their spice-heavy tang. The longest and the most unpleasant encounter I had with the potato was during my training with the Gurkha regiment of the Indian Army. The tubers, served with rice and chapatti, were like baby grenades shoved down my throat at gunpoint along with the military diktat, ‘Eat first before you complain’.

And in my do-or-die Bombay days, where I drew a paltry Rs600 stipend as a rookie journalist, the tubers came to my rescue in the shape of vada or bonda. Other than Bombay’s idiosyncratic potato vada, a food that sustained millions of poor across the world, the rest of Indian potato dishes were uninspiring, especially the messy aloo paratha. The jeera potato — which the last restaurant in the last village of India dished out during my recent Ladakh visit — was much tastier than the overrated north Indian aloo gobi. The potato in India never tasted potato, but the condiments that were shoveled into the curry.

It’s my migration overseas that opened up a whole new world of the tuber, whose legacy the Americans and Europeans have been celebrating since the 16th century, not just as a saviour of the mankind but as a fashion and political statement by kings to presidents. According to the Smithsonian magazine, Marie Antoinette Josèphe Jeanne, the last queen before the French Revolution, liked the purple potato blossoms so much that she put them in her hair, while her husband Louis XVI “put one in his buttonhole, inspiring a brief vogue in which the French aristocracy swanned around with potato plants on their clothes”. The kingly potato gesture was a political move “to persuade French farmers to plant and French diners to eat this strange new species”.

From the famed French fries, wedges, hash browns and mashed potatoes to the Italian patate alla contadina, the potato wears many a hat in the Western culinary world, while China boasts its own masterpiece variants. My late-night potato research, in the light of my boss’s recent query on the inevitable post-retirement life, took me to the make-believe Republic of Potatoes, an equivalent of the metaverse, where I fancied setting up a life far from the madding crowd. Something on the lines of the Garlic Capital of the World in California’s Gilroy town which sells products ranging from garlic jams to garlic aphrodisiac.

My house in the wintry fantasy republic, made of potato MDF and covered in perfumed mash potato veneer, would be home to a canvas print of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. Rooms covered in wall papers sporting images of different variants of the potato — from Peru where the Inca Indians domesticated the crop in 8000 BC to Europe where aristocrats popularised it as a sustainable staple alternative — would radiate the eponymous ambience. The bunch of pretty, purple potato flowers I would present to my partner as a token of love would adorn the patio day and night. Chickens would chase away my children who mixed potatoes with the eggs they sit on to hatch.

I would wake up to the clatter of my partner, who would beat the rounded potato in shape, making tea using powdered potato milk, while our kids — half-a-dozen baby potatoes — would clamour around astride potato-hued ponies. As I work my way to the riches in my farm where I grow only potatoes, my partner would cook hash browns for breakfast, French fries or wedges for lunch, and the Spanish ajo harina for dinner. My Hokkien-speaking farmhands would feast on julienned Sichuan stir-fried potatoes, while China girls would give my partner a lesson in Bolivian potato spa.

While our kids would clutter a sustainable bed made of stuffed potato leaves, sucking a bottled potato energy drink, and watching the 2013 Mickey Mouse cartoon Potatoland, my partner would spread the harvest out in cold nights to make the ubiquitous chuño, or juicy blobs, to sustain us in rainy days. I would be pursuing a doctorate from Peru’s International Potato Centre in the metaverse, when the republic is asleep, on how to produce organic potatoes.

Our life took a nasty turn on a fine morning when I lined up my Red Army of kids on top of a bench of hot potatoes as a punishment for stoning the distributor of The Potato Times with the tubers for delivering the paper at our doorstep much later than promised. The enraged ninja turtles ransacked the farm and threw me into an oak barrel storing potato wine. Everyone else scrambled to escape a rain of potatoes that followed. Pages torn from The Potato Times where I wrote my column littered the farm. They emptied a basket full of potato-made toys and splashed potato truffles across the stucco facade.

“Dad, dad, wake up. You had fallen off the bed, hurting yourself,” my daughter shouted, tending to a potato-sized lump on my forehead. “Anamika had called asking you to rush the column before the deadline. You better break your slumber and start writing.” She splashed a tumbler full of water on my face before walking off.


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