Digging potatoes brings satisfying memories

A heaping bowl of mashed potatoes would look particularly appetizing if they had recently been unearthed from the family’s vegetable garden

The one chore I didn’t mind down on the farm was digging potatoes.

Maybe it was because I liked spuds. I liked them mashed and sprinkled with smoky bacon grease. I liked them scalloped with lots of onions and thick cream sauce. I liked them cut in thin slices and fried on top of the McClary wood stove as an after-school treat. I was even known to eat a slice or two of raw potato with lots of salt. And what was better than fresh new potatoes slathered with home-churned butter?

While helping to plant potatoes in our farm garden was boring, come the day in autumn when it was time to dig potatoes I was far more enthusiastic.

By that time I had almost forgotten about hilling the long rows in the hot summer sun, or the icky job of finding potato beetles and drowning them in a pail of kerosene. Last year’s supply of spuds had slowly dwindled in amount and quality, despite being sorted and desprouted down in the cellar. Sticking my finger into a rotten potato? Yuck. Trying to peel one that was getting spongy? Frustrating.

The time had come for fresh, firm new potatoes with peel so delicate I could scrape it off with a paring knife.

Since we kids had an extra day off school, Thanksgiving weekend was often chosen to dig potatoes. If nature co-operated it was a sunny October day with just a hint of a breeze rustling the rows of corn stalks.

The potato tops had nicely dried and I couldn’t wait to see what sort of treasures we were about to unearth. I was not surprised when later varieties were called Netted Gems and Yukon Gold. Potato lovers everywhere could identify.

My teenage brother was handling the garden fork and as he loosened the soil around each dried plant I eagerly dug with my hands to see what I would find. Sometimes it was a hill of extra-large taters with deep set eyes; other times just chubby small ones with dimples.

My collie dog, Tubby, usually got in on the action. Sniffing around for gophers both real and imaginary, he would begin to paw vigorously in the dirt. Sometimes when he uprooted a hill, the potatoes would fly out between his hind legs and I would try to catch them in my gunny sack. It was the closest we ever got to automation.

As the day wore on, several sacks on the back porch bulged with newly dug potatoes.

Going into the kitchen to wash our dusty hands in the enamel basin, our overly keen appetites were whetted further by the smells of Thanksgiving supper.

Soon we gathered around the big oak table loaded with platters of roast turkey and stuffing, big plates piled high with thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes, bowls of creamed corn and cranberry sauce and pickle dishes filled with fresh dills. Pumpkin and apple pies stood ready for dessert on the top of the buffet.

In my mind, however, nothing looked quite so appetizing as the mashed potatoes heaped high on my plate like a mini volcano, the top hollowed out by the back of my spoon and brown gravy lava trickling slowly down the sides.

Of all the lifelong lessons I was to learn, one of the earliest was that “you get out what you put in,” illustrated so long ago by the simple act of digging potatoes in a prairie garden.

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