Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Old taters and young'uns

My son has a favorite dish (one of many!), and tonight, perhaps because I was subconsciously missing him in a post-holiday funk, I decided to make a batch of his much-beloved white chicken chili, a sumptuous, spicy concoction of poultry, legumes, peppers, onions, garlic and seasonings. I ran to the grocery store early in the morning and stocked up on ingredients, came home, and began to assemble the recipe and start the preparations.
The chicken was happily stewing in an enameled iron pot, bathing in a sensuous bath of parsley, sage, basil, and thyme, as celery and onions sizzled nearby in a pool of extra-virgin olive oil and freshly ground sea salt. An array of spices were lined up on the counter top, waiting for their moment to dive into the mix: cumin, garlic, crushed bay leaves, white pepper, paprika, rosemary.
It was time to put a batch of potatoes on to boil, so I headed to the basket in the laundry room where my mother stored her tubers, and started to rummage through the pile.  There were several firm, young potatoes on top, obviously from the latest purchase, perky little numbers that were smooth of flesh, fresh, adolescent. Underneath these youngsters were a few tubers starting to show a little age, yielding just a bit when I squeezed them, but still having enough life left in them that they could serve a future purpose.  On the very bottom of the basket,  resting on the cloth that covered and cushioned the weave of the split oak fibers, five old taters formed a pathetic, shriveled circle.  I pick the old boys up, looked them over, pinched their shriveled flesh, picked off a few odd growths, and decided it was the last act of courage they could perform by diving into the pot of boiling water and sacrificing themselves for the greater good of mankind, namely, dying for chili. I felt noble as I picked them up, rescuing them from the compost pile and a slow, rotting death, destining them for a greater cause.
As I stood at the sink scrubbing the old boys, it struck me how similar their life was to my own.  They had started out young, vigorous, full of life, firm of flesh, unlimited in possibilities.  In their youth, they would have been selected for exotic dishes, exciting dishes, cutting-edge dishes: roasted with saffron, creamed with cumin, scalloped with goat cheese, pan-fried with truffles. In their middle-age, an era I could sympathize with, these potatoes would have been selected for substantial but important duties: Saturday night steak fries, Sunday mashed casseroles, Wednesday creamed soups. But now, in the twilight of their lives, they lay forgotten on the bottom of the pile. It bothered me, looking at the basket, and I felt the need to rescue the old boys and let them fulfill their purpose, their cause, their mission. 
 So what if they had a few odd growths protruding from their flesh, a little wrinkled skin? I scrubbed each one with a stiff brush, doused them in cold water, and plunged them into a salt bath.  With surgical precision, I sliced off the hairy extensions, the lumps and bumps and protrusions, and shaved the wrinkled skin from each tuber. I peeled old flesh away from vibrant pulp, salvaged the usable body, and plunged the taters into a pot of salted, boiling water. These guys still had life left in them, and as they boiled away, as they waited for their next assignment, I felt noble in my cause, my rescuing them and helping them fulfill their destinies.
The old boys filled out the subtle layers of the chili, giving it a texture and a depth with their mature taste that it sorely needed. Had it been lacking, had these potatoes been omitted from the recipe, the dish would have been disappointing, flat, bland.  I could have opted for a pre-mixed package of generic, powdered chili-mix, could have used the younger, firmer potatoes, but the combination of mature vegetables, stewed chicken, and fresh spices created an aroma that caused the gastric juices in my stomach to rumble and churn in anticipation. The effort of blending old with new, fresh with seasoned,  the process of chopping and slicing, dicing and prepping, the melding of mature with adolescent,  produced a product I was proud of, eager to share, and which satisfied both my creative soul and my gastric longings.
Finally, after Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune had both finished, my creation was complete. I scooped steaming ladles of spicy chili into thick ceramic bowls, shaved jalapeno pepper jack cheese on top, and finished each dish with a dollop of sour cream.  I was proud of my little old men, the shriveled potatoes that had seemed lifeless, the fellows that gave the bulk and the stamina to the chili. 
And I learned something in the kitchen tonight.  Everything has a purpose, and a time, and a season.

Two old taters and a young'un

Ecclesiastes 3

A Time for Everything

1For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven.
2A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
3A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
4A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
5A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
6A time to search and a time to quit searching.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
7A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
8A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace.
   Everything has a purpose, and a time, and a season.

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