Molded in the cold earth, potatoes sprout up when we need them, the moist dirt still flecked on its skin until scrubbed away. And there's nothing wrong with the fact that potatoes have been historically associated with peasants and rural-dwellers, poverty, and hunger. All the best meals begin humbly, don't they?
Potatoes live a hard, wrenching existence, but a purposeful one. The potato is a mighty workhorse, that much is certain. Versatile. Reliable. It offers the kind of stick-to-your-ribs meal that has enabled human survival.
My goodness, that all sounds dreary. Let's move to the poem, shall we?
The Potato Eaters
Sometimes, the naked taste of potato
reminds me of being poor.
The first bites are gratitude,
the rest, contented boredom.
The little kitchen still flickers
like a candle-lit room in a folktale.
Never again was my father so angry,
my mother so still as she set the table,
or I so much at home.
This is the title work from Nathan's book from Orchises Press (1999)
Vincent Van Gogh has a famous painting (one of his earliest), called The Potato Eaters. It's not referenced in the poem, but I instantly made the connection because the poem is jarring in the same way. It's brief and spare, but you're left with a great emotional wave between each stanza. This is one of those cases where the unspoken and unwritten are just as powerful than the words we read on the page.
You might not feel much like eating a potato now, but I hope you'll reconsider. I decided to bring a bit of happiness to this poem. I wasn't interested in boring, boiled potatoes, "naked" in their flavor. No. Instead, I wanted something bright and summery, with the tart splash of lemon, a punch of pepper, and that puckering sensation of Dijon mustard coating your mouth.
SUMMER POTATO AND BEAN SALAD WITH ZESTY DRESSING
This is really more of an instinct recipe than anything, and all the measurements are adjustable. Don't fret if you make more dressing or have less green beans. Just use the best ingredients you have, your favorite herbs, and lots of mustard, lemon, and pepper.
About 3 cups of fingerling potatoes
Approximately 30 long string beans, any color
Zest of 1 lemon + its juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
A small shallot or onion, grated (about 1 scant tablespoon)
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
Red wine or balsamic vinegar, depending on your preference
Extra-virgin olive oil
A mix of chopped herbs (I used chives, green onions, and parsley)
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and season it generously with salt. Add the potatoes and cook for 6-10 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. The timing will depend entirely on the size of your potatoes. I like to use the smallest and cutest fingerlings I can find.
When the potatoes are about done, add the green beans for the last 2-3 minutes. If your beans are quite long, cut them in half first. Drain the vegetables into a colander, then pour into a large bowl.
While the potatoes and beans cook, make the dressing. Whisk together the lemon zest, juice, mustard, shallot, salt, pepper, and a splash of the vinegar of your choice. Slowly whisk in olive oil until you have about 1/2 cup of dressing. Pour over the warm vegetables immediately so all the juices can soak up. Taste, and adjust seasonings. The salad may need more salt and pepper. If you can bear to wait, let the flavors marry for a bit and serve closer to room temperature, but if not, enjoy whenever you're ready.