Sunday, May 13, 2007


We live in a world where there is a variety of starches to satisfy the palate. Dishes are put on the family table filled with noodles, rice, macaroni and other sources of basic nutrition. Back on the farm, we never had noodles, rice or macaroni. We had potatoes.

Potatoes were served with every dinner, along with biscuits and gravy. Most of the time, Mom mashed them. We never called them "whipped." Those suckers were mashed by taking a potato masher and violently squashing them, then beating them into a smooth finish. When there were leftover potatoes, Mom made potato pancakes, frying them out in the lard that she used to fry everything, rendered from a pig, fastidiously stored and dipped into as needed.

We relied upon potatoes as a mainstay of our diet simply because they were available. Every year, a field of potatoes was grown in a field near the house, then they were harvested and stored in the cellar. The cellar had doors that opened wide, like the gates to a luxurious mansion, but there the resemblance ended. If one stood outside those open doors, the first thing that he would notice is the odor.

It was a mixture of dark, damp, dank soil that hit the nostrils, filled with the slow decay of long forgotten food, dead insects, and canned goods. It smelled of spiders and mice and cold, clammy earth, and it loomed as dark as a dungeon, even when the sun was bright and golden outside its doors. To me, those doors were like a yawning, open mouth of a huge, dark entity from the netherworld.

The potatoes were carried into this dungeon and piled in a corner, a large hill of brown balls in various sizes and shapes, awaiting their turn at the table. When potatoes were needed, Mom would send me to the cellar to fetch a pail filled with them. I had to travel through the little room we called "the storeroom" where the milk was souring for the cottage cheese and the cream sat waiting to be made into butter.

A little door in the corner of the room led to the cellar stairway, a narrow corridor with rough wooden planks leading downward into what I considered to be as close to hell as any place could be. As I walked bravely downward, carrying my pail, it was like walking into the Valley of Death without a flashlight. At the bottom of the steps, there was a lone, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. If I could reach that spot before some monstrous evil leaped out at me from the shadows, and if I could swirl my arm around to encounter that string, the lone, bare bulb would cast a dim, shadowy light on the horrible items in that cellar, the hanging cobwebs with their crawling inhabitants, the red eyes of the watching mice, the slither that just had to be snakes.

It took a brave heart and a fierce determination to get to that light and get it turned on. Then, looking straight ahead and trying not to peek into the shadowy darkness, I would go to the potato pile. At first, after storage, those potatoes were firm, tasty tidbits, waiting patiently for me to pluck them and put them in my pail. But, after the weeks and months passed, those potatoes took on the evil characteristics of that cellar.

Yes, they sprouted long, tangled and eerily white arms, arms that reached upward toward me like a passel of evil spirits trying to capture my soul and I would be carried off to some dreadfully monstrous place, a Dead Zone, where I would wander, zombie-like, for all eternity, clasped in the devilish embrace of these deadly potatoes.

Sometimes, it was so frightening, or if the slithering sound became more prominent, I would drop my pail and run toward the stairs, screaming for help. Then Mom would open the storeroom door and demand to know what was the matter. "Bring those potatoes up," she'd say, "there'll be no dinner without them!"

So I would gather my wits and pick up my pail, my hefty appetite outweighing my fears. Again I would approach the potatoes, stick my hands through those eerie white arms and quickly dash the withered things into my pail. Then, I had to pull the string to turn off the light and grope my way back to the stairway in the utter darkness of a hopeless chasm of doom. I would clamber up the stairs, my heart pounding like a kettle drum, my grip on the pail like a vise, lest I spill the potatoes and have to return to the pile.

"Lord Almighty!" my mother would say. "I never saw a child make such a fuss about getting a few taters."

She never understood the demons that were loose in that cellar, never understood that it was filled with the spirits of the dead, hungry for the soul of a frightened little girl, ready to carry her off to the Dead Zone, panting for her flesh. Mom was never afraid of an evil spirit, a snake or a mouse. God had fashioned her to be fearless, whereas I was alone and lost in a vast and frightening world.

Today, I seldom eat a potato. Others may think of them as a basic food, but I know the truth. They are evil beings, waiting and lurking, messengers for a world of damp, smelly darkness. Boil them, fry them, smother them with cheese, they are still potatoes and, left to their own resources, will send out those frightful arms to embrace you and carry you off to the darkness.