Sunday, January 03, 2016

Potato Nostalgia

Sepia Saturday this week features a grocery store circa 1942. The "new potato" price caught my attention - about 4 cents a pound. The photo I've chosen from my own albums, I've used several times before but I'm re-cycling it yet again - a line-up of 3rd and 4th generation Irish in Canada, doing what they loved - picking potatoes.  My photo dates around 1948 when potatoes were still approximately the same price as in '42. Cheap!!! But we didn't trek out to the farm from our city homes to save money - we did it because we actually liked doing the picking and our reward was plenty of fresh new potatoes. My job was to put the picked potatoes into the buckets. If I concentrate and strain my memory as hard as I can, I can conjure up the smell of the dirt. Well, I can conjure up the smell of loamy, rich dirt - whether it's exactly the smell from that exact spot I doubt. 

What I think we were doing in my photo was thinning the rows of potatoes which is often the reason why new potatoes appear for sale in our markets The term does not apply to a specific variety of potato...any potato picked before maturity is a "new" potato. They are usually sweeter (less of their natural sugars have converted to starch), more tender and some claim have a slightly mineral/bitter but pleasant aftertaste. Most regular potatoes are cured for several weeks before entering the distribution stream. Curing allows the skin to set and also to small nicks and cuts to harden over. Curing improves the storage life of the potato - new potatoes don't keep as long.

My memories of the day this photograph was taken are vague, but I do clearly remember "Old Bob", the farm owner. He lived in a weathered shack on the property. He had a "goiter" and bulging eyes like Marty Feldman, who suffered from thyroid disease.  Marty's bulging eyes were caused by over-active thyroid glands and a botched surgery performed when he was young. Some people might have seen his looks as a negative but Marty did very well playing roles where his unusual appearance worked for the character. Bob wasn't as fortunate with his malady and I believe he was somewhat of a hermit. I was totally shocked when he came to my wedding dressed in a suit and tie. I'd never seen him in anything but overalls. 
Bob resembled Marty Feldman and not just the eyes.

I believe Bob was a WW1 veteran like my father; they were acquainted either through the legion hall, where my father drank, or through the Veterans Hospital where he practiced law and where Bob might have sought treatment for his thyroid problems.  It's hard to imagine my Dad handled the legal matters for the whole Veteran's Hospital - the only one in Manitoba, plus he did legal work in the province for the Veteran's Land Act. Now that we are so litigious, it would likely take a battalion of lawyers to handle such legal matters. 

My father made friends easily and had a string of people we'd visit when he went out on his Saturday rounds...people from all walks of life. As a small child I went along with the grocers, the bakery, the liquor store, the meat market. He knew people in all these spots and his rounds, ostensibly shopping trips, were mostly visits to see people and perhaps share a drink. Dad did family legal work for many of these folks ...drew up wills, transferred property and cleared up titles. He rarely charged for it...he'd take a bottle of whiskey as a payment instead. When I was in high school I was Dad's law clerk at home and did property title searches, typed and filed for his home legal business. It wasn't pleasant...we fought all the time. I thought he was overly critical and demanding (he was) and he thought I was a slacker (I was). We worked it out eventually; he accepted my limitations and the fighting lessened. As I grew older I refused to go along on his rounds because the visits were mostly gab about one of the wars and I wasn't interested. Now, I'd give anything to be able to go around with him and hear those stories.

Dad 1917. On the reverse he signs himself "Bashful Baby."
He was 17 - I guess the cigar was an attempt to make himself look older. 

Dad - Canada -1945. He was 46 and a judge advocate in the Canadian army. 


  1. A lovely memento of your dad with an artful story made from a simple snapshot. My mother tells of a summer before the war when her dad took the family from Washington DC to Minnesota to pick potatoes.

  2. A great story, starting with digging potatoes and finishing with memories of the farm owner and your Dad. So are you the littlest in the family photograph?

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I totally relate to regrets. I now wish that I had visited my grandmothers more!

  4. Such wonderful photos and memories. I didn't realise that about Marty Feldman.

  5. Digging for potatoes & the smell of the earth! Been there. One of the houses we rented years ago held a surprise for us. My son was playing out behind the garage - apparently digging in the dirt for some reason, & came across a full harvest of red potatoes! What a treat. Red potatoes are my favorite. The house also had 2 mature apple trees & a string of blackberry bushes. I was really sad when we had to move!