One of my earliest memories is of walking through the garden behind my grandmother. In Wetzel County in the 1960s, a vegetable garden was a common sight in every backyard. “Hack” and “Gertie” grew tomatoes and peppers, squash and corn, and always a large patch of “Half Runner” green beans that grandma canned in quart jars and lined up on shelves in the root cellar. The seed purchased was always Half Runners. No other bean would do. To this day, my family swears that Half Runners are the best tasting green bean. Other families apparently believed the same. I once was surprised to discover that a co-worker took a day off work each spring and drove to his family’s West Virginia hometown to buy the Half Runner seed which he couldn’t find in Ohio. (Today, it can be mail ordered from Burpee). But while my Grandmother’s canned green beans were almost a daily staple in our diet, it was the potatoes my grandparents grew that became a topic of conversation in our house for years.
As a toddler I called them “West Virginia potatoes.” They could be red potatoes or common white ones, but whatever the variety, I would wolf down boiled potatoes whenever we visited Wetzel County. At home in Ohio however, I was a picky child. I loved potatoes mashed or fried, or mashed and fried — shaped into a patty that Mom called a “potato cake.” But when presented with a plain boiled potato, I often left it untouched on my plate.
My mother tried everything to get me to eat her boiled potatoes. She cooked them no different than her mother did. It was a boiled potato after all. Cooking it was not a difficult skill to master. Why would her child eat her mother’s boiled potatoes but not her own? It wasn’t the water. I’d eat Ohio boiled potatoes if my Grandmother was there to cook them. Was there something different about the variety of potatoes Grandpa and Grandma grew that my pre-school palate could taste?
My mother started bringing home a large bag of my grandparent’s “West Virginia potatoes” each time we visited. Still, she had no success. I would not eat even the West Virginia grown potatoes if I was in Ohio unless my Grandma Gertie was there to cook them.
The “West Virginia potato” was a joke in my family for years. I grew up eating tons of boiled potatoes in West Virginia but didn’t much care for them on the Ohio side of the river. I was teased for thinking that West Virginia potatoes were somehow different than those grown anywhere else. It wasn’t until I was an adult that the mystery of the potato was finally solved.
While visiting my grandparents in my early 20s, Grandma boiled up some of her “West Virginia potatoes” for dinner. When I took my first bite, I immediately tasted the difference and for the first time, after all those years of teasing and hauling pounds of potatoes from West Virginia to Ohio, I knew what was special about the “West Virginia Potato.” But could it really be that simple?
It was. The answer was pepper! Grandma was heavy handed with the pepper shaker and my mother, who had been raising a finicky eater, assumed I guess, that I wouldn’t like pepper and never used it on my food.
I never told Grandma what her secret ingredient was. After 20 years she believed that she had the magic. I gobbled down her boiled potato and reached for a second. She would always be “Gertie the potato whisperer.”