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.” I loved my mother’s version of potato soup and like every kid, homemade French fries, deep fried in oil, were a delightful treat. But when presented with a plain, easy to prepare, 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 I eat lots of boiled potatoes at my Grandma’s dinner table in Smithfield, but not eat them when we were at home in Ohio?
My mother puzzled over the question. Was there something different that my pre-school palate could taste, about the variety of potatoes Grandpa and Grandma grew and those that came from our local supermarket?
Mom began to bring home a large bag of my grandparent’s “West Virginia potatoes” each time we visited but still had had no success getting me to eat a simple boiled potato.
As I grew and went on to attend grade school and junior high, I would scarf down boiled potatoes in West Virginia but not at home. The “West Virginia potato” became the dinner table joke of the decade. I was teased for thinking that West Virginia potatoes were somehow different than those grown on the Ohio side of the river. It wasn’t that I disliked the boiled potato of Ohio (or Maine or Idaho). I just found all but West Virginia boiled potatoes to be dull and tasteless.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that the mystery of the potato was finally solved. I was in my early 20s and had made a trip to visit my grandparents. At dinnertime, Grandma boiled up a pot of “West Virginia potatoes.” As we sat down at the table, my Uncle Eric made one of the usual jokes about it so the subject was fresh in my thoughts when I took my first bite. At that moment, after all the years of teasing and hauling pounds of potatoes from West Virginia to Ohio, I knew what was special about the “West Virginia Potato” that my Grandma Gertie cooked. Could it really be that simple?
Simple it was. My mother left potatoes in the serving bowl to be seasoned by each individual on his or her plate. But as a child, I never touched the salt and pepper shakers. Grandma added salt and a heavy-handed sprinkling of pepper before the potatoes ever reached the table. Unbeknownst to anyone, even myself, I had been a child that loved black pepper!
I didn’t tell Grandma what her secret ingredient was. After 20 years she believed that she had the magic. There was no reason to disrupt that illusion. I gobbled down the potato on my plate. A slight smile and a happy spark lit Grandma’s face when I asked her to “Please, pass the potatoes, ” and I reached into the bowl for a second helping.