Features and Occasionals

Grief Potatoes

By Alice Toler

Here’s a quirky little gift from my subconscious that bubbled up in the middle of dreaming one recent night. I held onto one sentence only: “Grief potatoes are the worst potatoes.” Utah is famous for a cultural dish called “funeral potatoes.” It’s a kind of scalloped potato casserole that’s traditionally brought around to households where a member has just died. Funeral potatoes are a comfort food, tasty enough to be appealing to someone whose grief-stricken taste buds interpret almost every foodstuff as cardboard.

Utahns are proud of their funeral potatoes, and it seems like every family has its own recipe. A big bone of contention seems to be whether you use corn flakes or potato chips for the crunchy top layer, but I’m digressing.

So those are funeral potatoes—but what about grief potatoes?

Grief potatoes are those raw, hard, clay-caked, cold and unpromising lumps that come in dirty baskets-full, directly dug out of the soil. If you’d never eaten a potato before, you’d look at your first raw one and say “that’s food?” Even after you wash the worst of the dirt off, if you were to sink your teeth into that fresh potato, it would taste awful. Starchy, grainy, and insipid. You’d eat it only if you had nothing else to sustain you, and it would definitely give you a bellyache. Grief potatoes.

Funeral potatoes are to grief potatoes as a funeral is to raw grief—it’s a known process that softens the hard things and puts them into a form that can be metabolized.

Cooking is weird and spiritual alchemy. The raw ingredients you start with are often indigestible, if not downright poisonous. Through a process of preparation and arrangement, and the application of just the right amount of heat (and perhaps some cheese and a can of cream of mushroom soup), the indigestible is rendered into something sustaining.

As the grief potatoes come out of the ground, we gather them into baskets and put them aside to be washed and prepared. It’s backbreaking and filthy work, lifting potatoes. But here we are, filling bushel-baskets, washing them, carefully slicing, arranging the ingredients.

I suppose if there’s a moral to this story, it’s that if life gives you potatoes, sometimes the best thing to do is just make a ton of casseroles.

This article was originally published on August 1, 2014.