Friday, May 24, 2019

Potato peelers

Mom had a potato peeler. It was a beautiful little instrument, cheap, small, and visibly designed for its purpose. Form and function, here, are Siamese twins. It was visibly not a knife for spreading butter on toast, or slicing a steak. It had two curved blades, which were separated by a small gap. You sank the sides of the gap into a spud, scraped down, and the peel would arrange itself on the napkin or plate you’d set out to catch it. Mom was swift and decisive with the thing. There were seven people in the family, and it was a family that loved mashed potatoes, hash browns, French fries, and anything with that good tuber starch. So the peels would fly.
The preferred potato of that time was the big ass Idaho potato. They were surely developed in some Cold War plant science department at a land grant agriculture university. They had the look of bombs, of grenades. The tough look of truckers and factory workers, with a knotty, fat shape and brown skin, under which of course, after peeling, you’d find the very white skin.
I believe it was Picabia – or maybe Duchamp – who, in the heady cubist/futurist moment, took the potato peeler as the subject for a painting. It was a time when all the artists were moving the sublime out of nature and into industry. Those amazing mass-produced commodities! The urinal, or the biscuit, or even the advertisement for a urinal or a biscuit.
Yet it struck me, as I was boiling potatoes the other day, that you don’t see people using potato peelers anymore. The idea that the skin of the potato must come off has had its day. Sure, you wrestle the potato out of the earth, but that was always only an excuse to motivate the peeling. You washed the potato anyway – or at least I seem to remember Mom did. Leeks, now, you still have to wash carefully, fossick around and find the dirt. But most potatoes are not going to come to you with the clay still sticking to them.
Do my friends peel their potatoes? This is one of those too personal questions you don’t want to ask your friends. Otherwise you will collect puzzled looks and soon be known as Mr. Spud. But I assume that most of them have thrown away – or never bought – the potato peeler. Betty Crocker, like Tinkerbell, is dead; but unlike Tinkerbell, her fans are not calling her back. We don’t believe in her any more.
Interestingly, the culture of peeling potatoes leaked out of the domestic kitchen. In the old movies about World War II, there was something called “KP”, a punishment in which the soldier or sailor who’d done wrong was forced to go to the kitchen and peel potatoes. This puzzled me as a kid, since it struck me as just common sense that peeling potatoes was much less onerous and more fun than marching around with a heavy pack on your back. I’d definitely have volunteered for KP.
Is this little gap between my Mom and me a sign of the times, a measure of progress, or regress? Is the potato peel that goes into the mashed potatoes and the hash browns a marker of greater sophistication or simply laziness?
MANY ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood --
And gone are Phidias' famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

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