The Poetry Of Potatoes

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

Symbol of both famine and fine cuisine, the humble “potato conjures images of
family, inner strength, something basic and sustaining, infinitely versatile and,
with its own goofy personality, agreeable.” So it is written in the introduction to a
book of poems about potatoes. “Spud Songs” was one of the books I received in
a stack of poetry books I bid on at a Kansas City event two years ago, all
published locally by Helicon Nine Editions. A percentage of the proceeds from the
sale of this book were donated to an organization fighting world hunger.
The editors go on to say that
“our continued exploration of a single word, of all words, is the journey of
the poet; in that journey ordinary things do not remain ordinary. The
strength of art is its ability to take something mundane and explode it, to
bring change into the world. By focusing on a single object, the poets here
take us toward an expanded sense of who we are.” p. 16 “Spud Songs”

As Unitarian Universalists, one of our goals is to bring change into the world, to
affirm and promote our principles – especially the inherent worth and dignity of
every person. We spend time looking at the world and the issues through
dialogue and discussion and look at who we are. This morning, I invite you to
consider human history during the past 500 years, as you understand it. Let’s
also consider how the lowly potato moved around the world, how it came to North
America, and the importance it had for the survival of sailors and the land locked
as well. As you listen to the poems I have chosen from SPUD SONGS, you have
an opportunity to experience “an expanded sense of who we are.”
I begin with

DIRTY ENGLISH POTATOES-Baildon, West Yorkshire
Steam-cleaned, so groundless you’d believe
Them exhaled from some passing cloud,
The Idahoes and Maines arrive
Same-sized, tied in their plastic shroud.

Their British kindred, unconfined,
Differ in breeding, taste, and size.
They come with stones you mustn’t mind.
You have to dredge their claypit eyes.

Their brows look wrinkled with unease
Like chilblain-sufferers in March.
No sanitized machines are these
For changing sunlight into starch.

Yet the new world’s impatient taint
Sticks to my bones. I can’t resist
Cursing my mucked-up sink. I want
unreal meals risen from sheer mist.
X. J. Kennedy, p. 95

On New Year’s Eve in my family it was customary to eat potato soup in order to
have good luck for the coming year. I have always liked potato soup, if it’s made
with lots of onions and celery, and it seems to be a comfort whenever I manage
to either cook some up, or be in a place where it is served. In 1990, Will and I
took a trip to the former Soviet Union. He was on business and I was one of
seven women, 6 Americans and 1 French woman, who were accompanying our
scientist husbands on this trip. Obninsk After the formal trip to Russia, Will and I
took a train to Minsk and then to St. Petersburg, where we would meet an artist,
who was a close friend of one of our friends in New Mexico. Tanya had just
returned to Belarus from a 3 month trip to the U. S. five days before we arrived.

She told us she would give us dinner in her apartment, because there was so little
food in any of the restaurants that one had to reserve many days in advance.
On the day we arrived, she was relieved to finally find some potatoes in the
market, which she cooked for us with some onion and salt pork. She served us
canned plums for dessert. The potato harvest that year was wonderful, but the
potatoes were in railroad cars that couldn’t get to the market cities where they
would be sold. It was not a famine but a broken infrastructure that kept food off
the shelves in Belarus. She had survived on bread and eggs.

I can’t imagine going to any grocery store in any city in our country and being
unable to buy potatoes. Red potatoes, yellow potatoes, Idaho baking potatoes,
new potatoes, and in the frozen food section – the list gets longer and longer.
Then there are potato chips and all the other snacks made from potatoes. We
can also buy canned potatoes, potato soup.

Today the grandpa dug potatoes in the field.
I followed along after
I picked them up and piled them in piles.
Some of them were very plump.
And all the time I was picking up potatoes
I did have conversations with them,
To some potatoes I did tell about
my hospital in the near woods
and all the little folk in it
and how much prayers and songs
and mentholatum helps them to have well feels.

To other potatoes I did talk about my friends—
how the crow, Lars Porsena,
does have a fondness for collecting things,
how Aphrodite, the mother pig, has a fondness
for chocolate creams,
how my dear pig, Peter Paul Rubens, wears a
little bell coming to my cathedral service.

Potatoes are very interesting folks,
I think they must see a lot
of what is going on in the earth.
They have so many eyes.
Too, I did have thinks
of all their growing days there in the ground,
and all the things they did hear.

p. 19 adapted by Jane Boulton from the diary of a child, Opal Whiteley

Potatoes are basic. They kept millions of people alive over the centuries since
they were discovered in South America. The early Spanish conquistadors
encountered the potato in Peru in 1532 when they were searching for gold.
Little did they know the immense value of what they found. Gradually they began
to use potatoes as basic rations aboard their ships. The potato was introduced in
Spain in 1570, and a few Spanish farmers began to cultivate them on a small
scale, mostly as food for livestock.

I hold my cut finger to the ice water,
return from the source of grain in the teeth—
the country where I knew a thousand words for love,
A handful of eye movements, not knowing
which direction to take, which roots to dig
and pile among vegetables.
In Peru, they open their hands,
offer the potato as the fruit from the top of the world,
people who fled the mountains for a crop at lower depths,
descending to cut the potato and find
the white meat, fiber tasting like the grain
that gave them speech.
Their vowels make me wish
I had a thousand words for my body,
a vegetable and tree planted from the testicle,
the black spot in the potato named
for the thousand sons, limbs holding up
the back of the tired worker,
Strangers who eat with their fingers and go back
to the high fields for the potato given
the thousand and one name,
dug from the soil they slept on,
the field where they paused …(to piss)
before climbing up the mountain
Ray Golzales p. 31

From Spain, potatoes slowly spread to Italy and other European countries so that
by 1600 the potato had entered Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Holland, France,
Switzerland, England, Germany, Portugal and Ireland. However, they were
considered unfit for human consumption. Such ugly misshapen tubers that came
from a heathen civilization must have been created by something evil.

The upper classes of people recognized the potato’s potential and the
encouragement to grow them came from above. In 1662, the Royal Society
recommended the cultivation of the tuber to the English government and the
nation, but potatoes did not become a staple until during the food shortages
associated with the Revolutionary Wars, the English government began to
officially encourage potato cultivation.

Other government’s followed suit including Frederick the Great of Prussia who
inspired the peasants by planting fields of potatoes and stationing a heavy guard
to protect the fields.

Potato, sojourner north, first sprung
from the flanks of volcanoes, plainspoken kin
to bright chili and deadly nightshade,
sleek eggplant and hairy tobacco,
we could live on you alone if we had to,
and scorched-earth marauders never bothered you much.
I love you because your body’s a stem,
your eyes sprout, and you’re not in the Bible,
and if we did not eat your strength,
you’d drive it up, into a flower.
David Williams, p. 87

During the 1620’s, the British governor of the Bahamas sent a gift box of potatoes
to the governor of the colony of Virginia. In 1789 potatoes finally hit the big time
when Thomas Jefferson served them in the White House. A steady stream of
Irish immigrants also contributed to the popularity of the potato in America.

The population of Ireland grew from less that 3 million in the early 1500’s to eight
million in 1840, largely because of the potato, which produced more food per acre
than any other crop. Most people lived on milk and potatoes. Blight wiped out
the potato crop in 1845, 1846 and 1848. The resulting famine killed a million
people and another million left for Canada and America. Many immigrants died on
board the boats because conditions were so crowded and dirty. Unfortunately the
blight was ravaging potato crops in the new world as well.

it was only that the poor
were driven to the margins
they were the throw away people
their little farms
those fields of rocks in cork and wexford
even less in the townlands

there were caricatures in punch
where have these gone
I could not find them in Ireland
nation of twenty year olds
shouting like animals
from the book of kells
when night softens the old streets
dingle or limerick or Dublin

everything is completed now
gone back to pasture
all the potatoes shipped in from Holland
someone has shut the evil eye
where the famine pits
reach to the bottom of the world

a broad green field here
where my sons could play soccer
and ten thousand
tumbled in one grave here
so many nameless uncarved bones

brickley is here surely
and finn and mccarthy
Harrington and driscoll
god keep you from hunger
my great uncles lost here
my keening aunts my cousins

it is the way it is
you were the lesser harvest
once the potato failed
the bloodless sacrifice
when the unexpected bad time came
wrong time famine time
champion and black skerry
those were your favorites
they had the deep eyes.
John Knoepfle, p. 27

David Williams reminded us that the potato is not mentioned in the Bible.
Perhaps that’s why Dan Quayle didn’t remember how to spell it. Most of us have
had a meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, found in many children’s toy boxes.
Do you remember the old counting rhyme, One potato, two potato, three potato,
four. Five potato, six potato, seven potato, more. Some issues become hot
potatoes, while some of us may be couch potatoes.

Beyond the obvious importance of the potato in our diets and our culture, to say
nothing of our economy, there is more to say. William H. Mcneill writes that the
potato is one

“factor explaining the surprising rise of the west… [It] was the extra food
that potato fields made available to the peoples of northern Europe. It is
certain that without potatoes, Germany could not have become the leading
industrial and military power of Europe after 1848, and no less certain that
Russia could not have loomed so threateningly on Germany’s eastern border
after 1891. In short, the European scramble for empire overseas,
immigration to the United States and elsewhere, and all the other leading
characteristics of the two centuries between 1750 and 1950 were
fundamentally affected by the way potatoes expanded northern Europe’s
food supply.”

Soon after World War II ended, Poet Richard Wilbur summed up his experience of
the war in a poem entitled: Potato

An underground grower, blind and a common brown;
Got a misshapen look, it’s nudged where it could;
Simple as soil yet crowded as earth with all.

Cut open raw, it looses a cool clean stench,
Mineral acid seeping from pores of prest meal;
It is like breaching a strangely refreshing tomb;
Therein the taste of first stones, the hands of dead slaves,
Waters men drank in the earliest frightful woods,
Flint chips, and peat, and the cinders of buried camps.

Scrubbed under faucet water the planet skin
Polishes yellow, but tears to the plain insides;
Parching, the white’s blue-hearted like hungry hands.

All of the cold dark kitchens, and war-frozen gray
Evening at window; I remember so many
Peeling potatoes quietly into chipt pails.

“It was potatoes saved us, they kept us alive.”
Then they had something to say akin to praise
For the mean earth-apples, too common to cherish or steal.

Times being hard, the Sikh and the Senagalese,
Hobo and Okie, the body of Jesus the Jew,
Vestigial virtues, are eaten; we shall survive.

What has not lost its savor shall hold us up,
And we are praising what saves us, what fills the need,
(soon there’ll be packets again, with Algerian fruits.)

Oh, it will not bear polish, the ancient potato,
Needn’t be nourished by Caesars, will blow anywhere,
Hidden by nature, counted-on, stubborn and blind.

You may have noticed the bush that it pushes to air,
Comical-delicate, sometimes with second-rate flowers
Awkward and milky and beautiful only to hunger.
Richard Wilbur, 1947, p. 89

In closing, it may be that we will never be hungry, nor have to depend upon the
humble potato in order to save our country. Yet hunger reigns around the world
as one of the most pernicious problems of our new century, both here in Kansas
and almost everywhere we travel.

As we gather together for First Sunday Lunch, I offer this prayer by Marc David:
“As you eat, know that you are feeding more than just a body. You are feeding
the soul’s longing for life, its timeless desire to learn the lessons of earthly
existence—love and hate, pleasure and pain, fear and faith, illusion and truth–
through the vehicle of food. Ultimately, the most important aspect of nutrition is
not what to eat but how our relationship to food can teach us who we are and
how we can sustain ourselves at the deepest level of being.”
(A Grateful Heart, no page number.)