I don’t often cook for my family anymore. I work full-time and don’t have the energy—or perhaps it’s the inclination—at the end of the day to go into the kitchen and prepare a meal. Fortunately, my husband (unemployed since last December), has taken on the role of house-husband and most evenings he cooks a meal for our family of seven.
I do miss cooking, so I often cook on weekends, preparing a family favorite or experimenting with something new.
Last Saturday morning I made Fried Potatoes as part our breakfast. I always fry my potatoes in the same skillet. A large stainless steel revere wear pan with a black plastic handle and a bottom warped from years of use. It’s not a great skillet but I can’t get rid of it because it belonged to my mother.
She gave this skillet to me years ago when the ratio of my six kids to hers tipped over; hers were leaving just as mine were still arriving. She knew I needed a larger skillet to keep my growing crew fed, so she passed it on to me.
I grew up poor, many people did, and food was sometimes hard to come by. We never starved, but neither did we have those convenience foods my children now enjoy. We didn’t eat boxed cereal, or bags of chips, cheese slices, or jars of juice or soda and almost never had candy bars or ice cream. We ate whole foods like oats and wheat cereal, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lots of and beans and rice.
My mother had six children, as I do, and every night she set our table with a meal. We were never hungry but staples are not the most fun foods to eat. My mother has an indomitable sense of fun. She believes it doesn’t matter how much you have, but what kind of experience you choose to create with what you have that makes life enjoyable. With my mother, I have sat at the kitchen, dressed in a nightgown and make-up, playing cards, I have learned to make grape jelly from grapes we picked in our back yard, I’ve made bread and biscuits, pizza and cinnamon rolls all from scratch. I’ve had picnics and sleepovers where we cordoned off one room for music and danced. I had very little from the standpoint of what you could measure in material wealth growing up, but from my mother I learned how to take what you have—no matter what that is—and make it fun.
On Sundays, all my growing years, my mother made us a big breakfast just for fun. It was a celebration of family and also a chance to eat our favorite foods. Traditionally, it consisted of pancakes with orange sauce and maple syrup, soya sausages and, of course, fried potatoes. My mother is a master at putting a complex meal together, and she was brisk, the heat making her face glisten as she hustled about the kitchen, assigning tasks to her fledgling cooks. We each had a job to do and mine was often to watch the potatoes.
My mother cut her potatoes in slim wedges, peels on. Today, I peel mine and chop them into one inch squares. The shapes of the potatoes may differ, but the procedure is the same. Chop them, drop them into hot oil and let them fry. I learned how to flip them without dumping them over the edges of the pan, I learned the timing for how long to let them fry before they needed flipping, I learned when to sprinkle the salt and how much was the right amount of pepper. I learned all I needed to know and took it with me into my own motherhood.
Over the years, amidst the bustle of the Sunday cooking, my mother often commented on how this skillet was the same make and style as the one her father had used when made fried potatoes for her and her sisters in the tradition of their family.
On Saturday, I repeated the fried potato ritual as I had many times before. I grasped the handle of the warped-bottom skillet, ready to flip and felt the ghost of my mother’s hand in the plastic. I felt a link, stretching back through my bloodlines to my mother then beyond her into my grandfather. I realized, I was a third generation potato fryer, and felt this simple act unite us as family as absolutely as the color of our hair, or the shade of our skin.
One of my children has left home and the next one down is right behind him. I fed four kids with the potatoes I fried on Saturday. I stood before the heat, with potatoes popping and frying, remembering my ancestors and wondered which one of my kids would inherit this skillet once my need for it is done.