The Mother of All Potatoes

I woke up Mother’s Day morning to an empty house.

I’d sent my kids away.  I’d made myself childless on the day meant to celebrate my being their mother (setting aside the original intent of Mother’s Day, of course).

I didn’t realize until it was too late that I’d robbed myself of the dry toast and tepid tea in bed.  I worried that I’d ruined my mother-in-law’s morning by inserting four raucous children.  I thought I’d gained a morning of sleeping in after a fun night out with friends – which was my top priority when babysitting became a possible overnight – but my eyes popped open inexplicably at 6:30 and I was up.

My husband and I had time to uninterruptedly discuss irritating things we’d been avoiding and got agitated. I worked uninterruptedly in the kitchen for almost five hours prepping the brunch to which I’d invited both our mothers, the muscles in my legs that didn’t get enough sleep twitching at me to sit down.

Still, I thought to myself, look at all you’re accomplishing without the children in the house.  This is taking a while without them here; imagine how much it would take with interruptions.  It actually boggled my mind that what I’d thought was a modest menu was taking so long to prep.  Another recent window into what realistic expectations actually are.  But I was doing it.  I wasn’t losing my mind.

And then, as I entered the final stretch, my husband asked about the potatoes.  The potatoes that needed to be scrubbed and chopped and roasted for a decent amount of time on which we were starting to run low.


Jennifer Butler Basile

As I cleaved into the dense sweet potatoes, feeling the solid thunk of the blade on the board below, the irony did not escape me.  My quintessential metaphor for the struggle of motherhood, right there in front of me on Mother’s Day.  Why the hell was I chopping potatoes on the day already fraught with unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations, sorrow and disappointment, fete tinged with personal feelings of failure?  I just wanted a nice brunch for everyone and be done with it.  Not think – of the magnitude of motherhood and its struggle.

I didn’t let my husband prep the potatoes like I should have – from either a need to control the size of the dice or to see things through whole since I’d prepped every other dish.  But he’d taken over scrubbing the dishes for me – seeing firsthand what a PIA the caked-on pizza crust from two nights earlier was.

I didn’t go all out escapist as I cubed the potatoes as I may have one day.  But I acknowledged that I was stressed by a full morning without kids.  Which meant that I wasn’t just horrible at handling them and life; I needed to start expecting both less and more of myself.

The visceral memory of chopping potatoes may never go away, but this time it was a gentler reminder of checking my tension, setting (actually) realistic goals, asking for help; of actually voicing my needs and accepting the resultant offers of help.

We need to be as gentle with ourselves as we strive to be as mothers.

Patate Pazze

Crazy potatoes.

I found the recipe for this dish, a Campomelano classic, in A Year in the Village of Eternity: The Lifestyle of Longevity in Campodimele, Italy by Tracey Lawson.

I thought, how ironic, the name of this dish, given that it was potatoes that nearly made me go crazy.  Now there’s a food ripe with metaphor.  How witty, how clever I am.

Then I went back and read the entire chapter in which this recipe is featured: The Mountain Gives You Everything.  Lawson explains that it’s a phrase uttered over and over by the residents of this mountainous Italian village, meaning, “in every moment, in every season, the mountain provides all the things you really need; the very essentials of life.”

And just like that my metaphor switched from potato to mountain.

Do I need the crazy potatoes dug up from the earth of the mountain?  No.

Were they there, ripe for the harvest?  Yes.

And when did they become crazy?  When mixed with the greens and grasses that also occur naturally on my mountain.

“Seek and the mountain will give,” says Lawson; to which an aged resident says, “You just need to know where to look.”

But Lawson also stresses that “it’s really a question of knowing how to look.”

I think that potatoes popping up all over the fields of our lives crowd out our ability to look.  Add the wild greens of distraction, stress, and overwhelming life events sprouting up wherever they may and often spreading like wildfire – and it’s a recipe for disaster.

But the wild greens boiled with the potatoes for patate pazze, are used “to flavour potatoes which may be past their best after more than six months languishing in the cantina.”

Did I not respond well to the stresses of my life because I was already languishing?

Or were they sent to me to add some dimension to my life, stir things up, a zesty flavor to respond to?

In any event, I may have found a way around my abhorrence for chopping potatoes.  This recipe calls for boiling the potatoes in their skins, slipping them out once cooked, and then slicing them, which would no doubt be much easier than chopping them raw – no matter how many cranky kids circle my feet.  I’m willing to take whatever the mountain will give.


All quotes and references come from the following:

9781596915022Lawson, Tracey.  A Year in the Village of Eternity: The Lifestyle of Longevity in Campodimele, Italy.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

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