“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”
– George Moore, The Brook Kerith
One thing I’ve come to know for certain is that no matter how long you live in a place, you can never entirely get your roots out of the soil where you grew up.
For the thousands in this valley, like me, who still have prairie dirt under your fingernails and between your toes after decades away, there is a book you’re going to want to have.
No, it’s not a cookbook. It barely mentions food. But Lorna Crozier’s B.C. Book Prize-winning memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, is a book of home. And because of that, if home to you was in your mother’s or grandmother’s Saskatchewan kitchen, or vegetable garden, that is exactly where it will take you. You will be flung there, breathless, suddenly smelling hot roll kuken and watermelon. Fresh bread and Saskatoon berry jam. Chokecherry syrup. Hot, salty fat as cracklings spit and hiss on the stove.
Today, I am overcome with missing a place I don’t want to be.
Lorna Crozier, you see, besides being one of Canada’s most celebrated poets, is from my home town. A generation apart, she attended the same two schools in Swift Current – Central and Beatty. We watched the same Canada Day parade, waded at the same outdoor paddling pool, skated on the same outdoor rink. She lived on 2nd West, six blocks from the house on 8th where I later grew up. And she held the same fascination for reaching into a freshly-butchered chicken and pulling out its guts, its string-of-pearl, shell-less eggs, not yet laid.
And then there were the potatoes.
“Mom’s goal every year was to grow enough potatoes to last us through the winter,” Crozier writes. “That wasn’t easy, because every day was potato day at our house…boiled or mashed or scalloped, sliced and fried in bacon fat or pulped with a fork for the topping of shepherd’s pie. Mom would mix new potatoes with fresh peas and cook them in a cream sauce made from butter, flour and milk, and lots of salt and pepper…
“I never questioned why we ate so many potatoes. But the potatoes served for supper at my friend’s houses were definitely a different kind. Our garden’s earthy signature–the coldness of the ground in spring, the runoff from the alley, water from our hose, and the dirt my father sweetened with manure from my grandparents’ farm–was as familiar as the salt I licked from the sun-browned skin on my forearms. They were our potatoes, and I had helped make them.”
The potatoes I helped make were my grandparents. In late summer, I followed Grandpa with his pitchfork as he turned over potato mounds and let me pick them up at five cents per pail, after which they were emptied into a wheelbarrow and stored in the root cellar.
Nothing will ever taste the same as those potatoes, which my grandmother sliced into lard that, when she began to lose her eyesight, was measured into her cast iron pan to the depth of her first knuckle.
It’s the simplest thing, yet I’ve never been able to reproduce the flavour. And though I try again and again, because the potatoes are different, things will never be the same.
Country Fried Potatoes
about 6 large red potatoes
1/3 cup canola oil
kosher salt, fresh ground pepper
Scrub potatoes and slice into quarters. Cook in a large pot of salted water. Drain, slice thinly.
Heat fat in a large cast iron skillet until it sizzles when a bit of potato is introduced. Add potatoes. Cook until golden brown. Remove from fat with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Season generously and serve.
– Story and Photos by Darcie Hossack