Eyes opened the portal. Potato eyes, tuberous knots protruding from brown skin. I gripped the sharp knife blade, slicing it into potato flesh, carving around eyes and I could hear his voice, a sound long buried in deep memory recesses. “Be careful not to cut through the eyes,” my paternal grandfather said, as he instructed me to correctly cut a seed potato, leaving enough flesh to sustain a growing plant. I watched his blade as he deftly cut the seed, leaving three pieces which would each form a potato plant that would produce numerous underground tubers.
Purple Majesty Seed Potatoes, prepped
I was about eight years old when my family allowed me to wield my own sharp knife and join them in my grandparents’ kitchen where baskets of seed potatoes waited to be processed into hundreds of individual seed pieces, each sporting at least one or two eyes. My grandfather, Lawrence Hamby, was usually a man of few words, but as he watched me work, he tipped back his ladder back chair, painted green, and told me a story.
I was not much older than you, he began, pointing his knife in my direction, when my daddy sent me to take something to the barn. It was just about suppertime and I closed that gate and started back to the house. Must have heard something in the grass behind me and when I looked over my shoulder, I saw the biggest snake I had ever seen in my life. Well, I started to run and looked back to see if he was still there. Oh, boy, he was and he was chasing me! Scared to death, I ran faster. It was a black racer, fast and not poisonous, but looked like he wanted to eat me up! I looked back and that snake was still coming after me and getting closer! I ran ‘til I couldn’t run no more. With the last breath I had in my body, I turned around, threw my arms up over my head and screamed at that snake for all I was worth. Well, don’t you know? That ole snake stopped dead and looked at me and then turned around and took off in the other direction!
Lawrence Hamby, 1926, carves with the knife he used to prep seed potatoes
Paw Hamby died when I was twelve years old and although he is featured prominently in many family home movies, there is no soundtrack of his voice, no audio reminder of his laugh. Potato eyes opened a time portal and when I remembered the story, I could hear that distinctive inflection, see the twinkle in his eyes and the belly laugh that punctuated the end of his tale as he rocked forward and landed the chair legs flat. In my mind’s eye, I could see dappled afternoon light filtering through my grandmother’s kitchen window curtains, smell the earthy fragrance of potatoes and recall that feeling of acceptance as I helped with a grown-up task. As an adult, I appreciate his story for the life lesson it is.
Kate cuts potatoes for planting in 2016.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2009, when my daughter helped with Heart & Sole Gardens’ potato harvest. With no plow, we shoveled tubers from soil rendered rock hard from near drought conditions. Attempting to fulfill a restaurant order for purple fingerlings, we worked to extract tiny tubers from dirt that was close to the same color as the potatoes, both of us crawling on our knees to search for the camouflaged crop. Afternoon temperatures soared into the nineties, zapping our strength and dehydrating our bodies before we ceased work, driving miles toward home while vehicle air conditioning cooled boot soles. After days of potato digging, our hands blistered and our harvest was short of the requested number of pounds, but we called it quits with what we had.
When I delivered the potatoes to Sam Ratchford, chef and owner of Vidalia Restaurant in Boone, NC, I knew he would appreciate the ingredient and create delicious dishes, but his face registered surprise when I handed over boxes and said, “As God is my witness, I will never grow Purple Peruvian Fingerlings again!”
Seed potato "eyes"
Despite the back-breaking work, heat and disappointing harvest, my daughter, Kate, and I bonded over potatoes. Although she now works in a bustling big city office, she returns to help plant and harvest potatoes. Paw Hamby’s instructions passed through me to her and she understands the importance of eyes, as I accept my role as information conduit, a tangible connector for two potato planters who never met.
Tractor implements made last week’s planting of 200 seed pounds easier, but potatoes still require physical work and, I like to think, contain portals that encourage memory making. Perhaps, at some future time, Kate will pass along potato lessons to another generation.
Since 2009, Heart & Sole potato crops have included over thirty varieties, but as for Purple Peruvians? Nevermore . . .