Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Stairway Remembered

Heading out to lunch today, I plugged my iPhone into my car stereo and put it into shuffle mode.  It began playing "Stairway to Heaven", which I've heard (and played) hundreds of times.  But today, I couldn't help remembering the first time I heard the song.

It was a chilly Memphis afternoon in late 1971, and I had just arrived at Mullins Methodist for our weekly rehearsal with the One Way Singers.  While we were setting up our equipment, one of our sound guys told us he had this new song we just had to hear.  He put "Stairway" on the turntable and played it through the church's PA system.  Immediately, we all stopped what we were doing and listened to the song straight through to its conclusion.  At the end, we all just stood there speechless, somewhat amazed that a rock song this original, and yet this flawless, could have been written.

And today, almost forty years later, I found myself doing the same.  For just a moment, a brief moment, I was transported back to that time.  Two things became abundantly clear today: time passes much faster than I could ever have imagined, and some memories are indeed a joy to unearth.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four...

Since birth, I appear to have been obsessed with potatoes of all types.  Indeed, I cannot remember a time when they were not an integral part of my diet.  I must have passed through a rice cereal phase, and I'm sure there were forays into strained apples, but in the end, and prior to the dawn of my conscious memory, I came to my senses and began consuming potatoes in earnest.  It must have been a day of celebration in my toddler life.

I actually came to know potatoes in stages.  The earliest tater memories that I have are of french fries.  When we moved to Memphis in 1960, my parents took me to a McDonald' had been years since they'd lived in a place with Mickey D's, and I think their craving got the best of them.  So from that point forward, I became seriously involved with the lovely russet potatoes used to fill those red boxes.  There was no going back, I soon discovered.

Back in the day, Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were largely independently franchised, and the owner of our local establishment was one Jack Pirtle, which I always thought was a particularly fitting name for a chicken man.  Pirtle served up the trademark chicken with these limp, but quite tasty, crinkle cut fries, served in a loose-fitting paper wrapper that resembled a modern day coffee filter.  One night, my parents decided to step out on a limb, and instead of french fries, we ordered mashed potatoes, which I flatly refused to eat.  But this being the 1960's, there was no alternative offered, so I finally gave in after about an hour and tasted them.  It was a pivotal moment in my life -- these wonderful soft potatoes, covered in a tasty brown gravy, were something I had missed for ten years, so believe me, I made up for lost time.

In the early 1970's, company-owned Kentucky Fried chicken restaurants began to appear, and they did not offer french fries of any type.  Instead, they replaced them with tater tots.  Let me say that for whatever reason, it took me quite a long time to warm up to tater tots, but eventually, as with mashed potatoes, I discovered that with just the right proportions of ketchup and salt, these too could be made into edible delicacies.  To this day, I still like to know where my tater tots came from.

And then there is the entire universe of potato chips, invented by one George Crum (pictured at right) on August 24, 1853.  Let's face it, 87% of people on the planet, regardless of what they say, can eat mass quantities of potato chips without feeling any guilt whatsoever.  They might say, "Oh, no, no chips for me," but seriously, even the strongest of naysayers will still reach into a freshly opened bag and stealthily grab a couple of chips.  You can always tell the chip dilettantes, though...they're the ones who bring off-brand chips to social functions.  Local brands such as Cape Cod or Laura Scudder's are perfectly acceptable, but the house brands of major grocery chains will cause the seasoned potato chip aficionado to look askance and perhaps even ask for potato salad instead.  Poor form, indeed.

Among the finer things in life, the simple baked potato must truly stand alone.  What other creation can be brought home, placed in the microwave, then split open, buttered and seasoned, and consumed with such pure delight?  One of our favorite meals is "potato night", where we simply bake the potatoes, then put out bowls of grated cheese, broccoli, and bacon, which each person measures onto their potato in their own customized ratio.  When I know that potato night is on the horizon, I have no concentration during the day, instead thinking ahead to dinner.  When I'm out at a restaurant, I will order a baked potato "with all the stuff on the side", then systematically proceed to add all that same stuff (except sour cream) to the potato, with extra butter for good measure.  With baked potatoes, I almost always end up eating the entire potato, skin and all.  I read once in the 1970's that eating the potato skin has benefits, so I've followed that advice ever since.  The 1970's were a great time for learning things like that.

Surely, no reference to the potato world would be complete without the inclusion of hash browns.  Indeed, hash browns alone can turn a mediocre breakfast into sumptuous splendor.  My home city of Atlanta is also home to Waffle House, and according to one meticulous researcher, there were at last count 1,572,864 ways to order hash browns at WAHO.  Some of the more popular variations are "scattered" (spread on the grill) and:
  • smothered (with onions)
  • covered (with cheese)
  • chunked (with ham)
  • topped (with chili)
  • diced (with tomatoes)
  • scattered (with jalapenos)
  • capped (with mushrooms)
I generally order my WAHO hash browns "smothered", and they are simply divine.  The key to good hash browns seems to be to cook them until the edges and tops turn a medium toasty brown.  They are the ultimate breakfast side dish experience, and I'm convinced that they were invented by a higher power.

We cannot have a fancy dinner without someone suggesting "cheesy potatoes", which are diced potatoes mixed with cheese and other "nutrients".  I have seen many people eat the cheesy potatoes, and regardless of age, gender, national origin, religious beliefs, or shoe size, I have yet to see anyone exhibit any degree of control in eating them.  It appears that when it comes to cheesy potatoes, there are truly no known limits.

In one potato arena, I am severely deficient: sweet potatoes.  This is not because I do not like them, but rather, they do not appear to like me...they give me headaches, regardless of how they are prepared.  On one unusual occasion, I had a strong craving for baked sweet potatoes, so we had them with dinner, and I gobbled mine like a freed prisoner.  However, two weeks later we had them again, and this time, I could not put down the first bite without sustaining a pronounced headache.  I can only assume that on that first sampling, my body was craving something in the sweet potatoes, but I'll never know.  I nibble around the currently popular sweet potato fries, but something in them strikes a chord of dissonance within my system, so I leave them to those who truly appreciate them.

A few weeks ago, I heard on the news that potato growers are concerned about a marked decline in french fry consumption within the last couple of years.  According to the people who study this kind of thing, consumers are a) opting for alternative side dishes, and b) declining said side dishes because of the added expense in this fragile economy.  Most people seem to think that when the economy bounces back, so will french fry consumption.  In the meantime, restaurants are offering interesting french fry variations, such as Wendy's Natural Cut Fries with Sea Salt, in an effort to keep sales level.  Who knows what will happen?

Just this evening, I had a meal at Chick-fil-A with their fabulous waffle fries.  I know they're probably not all that healthy an option, yet it makes me feel good to know that in some small way, I'm helping to stimulate the American economy.  I can't buy a new car or a new house right now, but I can certainly eat me some waffle fries.  It's the little things.