The Fat-Wah Is Raging: (5) The Potato Dialogues

One day during the Christmas holidays I was going through a bag of potatoes, selecting the ones I would cook, when it struck me how many shapes there were for potatoes. Some spuds were smaller and rounder--these were the ones I was looking for, because I was going to roast them--and a few had a pleasing oblong shape suitable for baking. Others were medium-sized and lumpy but you could quarter them for the oven, cube them for frying, or boil them for mashing.

Which sounds diverse, but in the greater scheme of potatoes these were fairly uniform. They had been carefully selected to go into the bag with a lot of other potatoes that looked just like them for distribution to my local grocery store.

Sometimes an irregularly-shaped potato slips through the oddball filter. I found one shaped like a Valentine heart. But I grow potatoes myself and I've dug up spuds shaped like Mickey Mouse heads, ducks and the Loch Ness monster. My friend and fellow gardener Eloise told me she had found one resembling "a big ole butt, that looked like it had something comin' out of it."

I bet commercial growers harvest big-ole-butt potatoes, too, and I expect they turn them into some dried, extruded or otherwise processed food. They don't put them in bags to ship to the grocery store because they don't think shoppers will buy them. Probably they're right. What they put in the bag is potatoes that shoppers are known to like and admire. But the fact remains, there are a lot of shapes for potatoes.

Which brings me to to the next point: There are a lot of shapes for people. Humans come in everything from tiny black pygmies to tall blond Scandinavians. But there are only a few body types that as a culture we like and admire, and as I peeled potatoes for dinner I reflected that the reason I hadn't been eating many lately was that I wanted to be one of those pleasing oblong shapes myself.

I'm not. In the potato field of life I'm no baker but one of your medium lumpies, your big-ole-butts, your turn-this-one-into-tater-tots-Earl-it-ain't-ready-for-prime-time. But I don't want to be tater tots! I like to think I'm an independent thinker but I expect I'm as susceptible to popular prejudices about physical beauty as anybody else. That's what this Holy Month of Robindon is all about. I keep dieting and exercising and trying to make it past the oddball filter into the bag.

Our cultural slant toward skinniness has given women like me a lot of grief but something I read once about Africa would indicate it's caused worse trouble than that: In Rwanda, the two big ethnic groups are the Tutsis, who are kin to the Watusis, the tall, thin tribe, and the Hutus, who are related to the Bantus, the short, squat tribe.

The Belgians who colonized Rwanda, I read, admired the willowy grace of the Tutsis and favored them over the little plump Hutus, providing them educational opportunities and good jobs in government service, treating them as a class above the fatties. This engendered resentment, class warfare and ultimately, after the colonial powers had retreated, genocide.

That's the worst-case scenario, of course, but Hutuhood ain't a bowl of cherries for the rest of us, either. If you've never read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels by Alexander McCall Smith, I recommend them. They are written with great charm and are set in Botswana, where the heroine, Precious Ramotswe, runs her detective agency. Precious buys her dresses in size 22 and declares herself proud of her "traditional African build." It doesn't seem to bother anybody else, either, as all the men in the novels are always begging her to marry them.

But in the second Precious novel I read, an anonymous letter writer calls our heroine a "fat bitch" and Precious is as hurt as anybody would be, reflecting, "Traditional build is something that can happen to anyone."

When I worked at a university library years ago, I knew a graduate student in anthropology who pooh-poohed American skinny-worship. In the majority of cultures worldwide, she told me, women on the average outweigh men.

But the graduate student herself was slender and lovely and hated by the faculty women because she had snatched one of the professors from his dumpy little wife with whom he had a child. I always thought if she'd been more "traditionally built" herself her assertion would have carried, ahem, more weight.

But weren't we talking about potatoes?

I love to cook and there is nothing I love to cook more than potatoes. There are a million ways to fix them and all of them are good. Baked, mashed, hashed, roasted, fried... I have a simple manually-powered machine we call the Choppen-Zee-Upper (remind me to tell you the story of the Choppen-Zee-Upper some day) that cuts potatoes into perfect little cubes which I toss with olive oil and salt and bake in the oven until crisp. They're supposed to be lower-calorie that way than fried.

You wouldn't know it by me. It seems to me that whenever I go into one of my potato-cooking frenzies it morphs into one of my Goodyear Blimp phases. So when I'm trying to lose weight (which is most of the time), I avoid potatoes along with everything else good in life. It was only because the Law of Calories is magically lifted during major holidays that I was cutting up potatoes this December evening I'm telling you about.

And I had the thought: Potatoes are delicious, cheap and nutritious: Wouldn't it be nice if I could eat them any time I liked? If the Law of Calories could be overturned and the things I like to eat wouldn't make me blow up like a balloon?

The next thought was: And it would be seriously wonderful, too, if I didn't have to think about the "cheap" part. Wouldn't life be grand if I didn't always have to fret about how much things cost?

The third thought was: And it would also be great if we didn't have to die.

Which brought me back to earth and that's where we'll end this. I can't do anything about death but enjoy life. I can't do anything about the money system or our cultural perceptions of physical beauty, and I can't do anything about the Law of Calories. The world is what it is. All I can do about it is keep plugging away at my eternal and probably impossible quest for self-improvement and that's what I'll do.

As the Holy Month of Robindon winds down this year, I've done pretty well though of

course I haven't lost nearly as much weight as I wanted to. I never do! What's next? February is the same as January except that allowances are made for weekends. March? Well, there's always a little backsliding around St. Patrick's Day, when potato planting seems to scream for green beer. And speaking from experience, diet-wise the year goes downhill from there.

So next January, if I live so long, may well find me in the same state as it did this year, and I may well charge into another Holy Month of Robindon with the same zeal. It may be a natural cycle or it may all be pointless and futile.

I don't know. I just know I can't help wanting to be a different kind of potato.

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