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The spuds of wrath

first published in Roger's blog, Kitchen Mishaps: Culinary struggles with the Erratic Cook

Few foods are as freighted with frustration as the potato’, says Bruno.

        ‘That’s quite clever. Is that original, or did you read it somewhere?’

        ‘No, it’s all mine. Coined specially for you. A man who, despite the past, is still determined to make out in the kitchen deserves something memorable.’

        Bruno and I met as flatmates more than fifty years ago, and since then we’ve shared a lifetime’s experience of each other’s bad cooking. We’re accustomed to failure, though we don’t always accept it gracefully. My ambitions lean towards haute cuisine (well, haute-ish) but usually result in low comedy. For Bruno, on the other hand, quantity beats quality every time, but he hasn’t yet realised that when a meal is only just edible, having more of it isn’t necessarily an improvement.

        Eating at his place requires me to undergo a preparatory day or two of voluntary starvation, to avoid offending him by leaving most of my meal on my plate. When he eats my food he often asks at the end of the meal when we’re having the main course.

        I’ve invited him over for lunch today, in the hope of finally demonstrating to him that small but exquisite trumps big and slapdash. By the time he arrives the kitchen bench is, as usual, covered in debris. Today the decorations are mostly splotches of eggy breadcrumbs, and everything is covered by a fine dusting of flour.

        ‘What’s for lunch, then?’

        ‘Today,’ I intone with only a touch of pomposity, ‘we will be having tuna and potato croquettes with chilli and lime sauce, followed by – ’

        ‘I get it—fish cakes. Fine, as long there’s plenty.’

        ‘I appreciate your support. How about pouring us some of that chardonnay over there?’

        I’m still optimistic—though maybe not quite as optimistic as when I started. And if I’m going to fail—gloriously or, more likely, not—once more, it’ll be easier to bear after a few drinks.

        Bruno pours and takes a few sips. Meanwhile more mess accumulates in my general vicinity. I need to get more of the ingredients into the croquettes (alright then—cakes) and less in other parts of the room. I could, I suppose, scoop up what’s fallen on the floor and re-incorporate it in the mixture; Bruno probably wouldn’t notice or care. I’m beginning to doubt whether this is going to turn out well. If I can’t do better, my appointment with culinary destiny may have to be postponed.

        ‘Why,’ asks Bruno, ‘do we find cookery so hard? Other people seem to manage.’

        ‘I wish I knew. But you can see the symptoms of the malaise for yourself. Look—here’s the mashed potato mixed with tuna and herbs. You make some of it into a ball, then it’s into the flour, the egg and finally the breadcrumbs. You flatten it out a bit and it’s ready for the pan. What could be simpler?’

        ‘So what’s the problem?

        ‘You only have to look around. It’s the potato, that’s what. The bloody crumbs refuse to stick to it. Everything looks okay, and then without warning there’s a crumb avalanche all over the bench. And the floor. And any that remain just stick to the frying pan.’

        ‘That’s too bad. Mind you, with our record it’s hardly a surprise, is it?’

        I didn’t really need that. Still, while there’s fish there’s hope, as it were, and I’m ready to start frying (even though the perfectly browned croquettes which I’m aiming to produce now look more likely to be warmed-over fish-flavoured mash). As soon as I’ve poured myself another glass.

        Part of my trepidation stems from my relationship with the potato, which has always been guarded at best. There have been times when I’ve found it very useful. At others, it’s made me sweat and fume. I’ve nothing against the taste, texture, wholesomeness, even the appearance, of the potato. But over a lifetime it’s caused me much angst. Now I regard it as I would an erratic old friend—nice to know on a good day, but unpredictable.

        ‘Anyway’, says Bruno, ‘let’s make the best of it. In my book there’s nothing wrong with mashed potato, with or without the crumbs. And if we’re still hungry we can always go down the road for a burger.’

        He pauses. ‘And looking on the bright side, isn’t potato supposed to be an aphrodisiac? Could give us old guys something to look forward to, eh?’

        ‘Don’t get your hopes up. I heard about it when I was at college, so—as boys will—I ate several large baked spuds to see if it worked. The only effect was that I was severely constipated for a few days. Didn’t do a thing for the libido. Just another of life’s disappointments, I guess.’

        ‘Before you started to tell me about your failed sexual exploits,’ says Bruno, ‘I was going to ask why you didn’t try instant mashed potatoes to make your fishy-potato-cake-things. Lot less trouble.’

        ‘Not a chance,’ I say. ‘I’ve sworn an oath never to let another instant mashed potato pass my lips. My brother—he’s the outdoorsman of the family and prefers to travel light—once tried to convert me to it. Just like the real thing, he said, only faster. Just unzip the packet, he said, and follow the printed instructions: tip contents into a billy can, add water and heat.’

        ‘So what’s wrong with that?’

        ‘Well, my mistake may have been assuming that the cooking environment didn’t matter much. My bro’s normal technique is to hike fifty kilometres into a forest, fell part of it, stack the branches in a clearing and incinerate them. He swears this improves the flavour. I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t get the same result on the kitchen hob, without all the other aggro. And he was sort of right: instant mashed potato is just as good as the real thing—but only if you’re fond of wet plaster. Not only did it look and taste like wet plaster, but it had pretty much the same effect. There must have been something in it as well as the potato: once I managed to swallow some, it settled in my gut and began to solidify. Took me days to get rid of it. Really annoyed me.’

        ‘Got it,’ says Bruno, peering into the frying pan before pouring himself a third glass. My might-have-been potato croquettes are sizzling towards what should be a golden consummation, but at the same time are steadily disintegrating. How is this going to end?

        As often at such moments, my concentration begins to waver. My thoughts wander to the almost-forgotten days when, with a parent who was still willing to cook for me, I discovered that the potato wasn’t only food.

        Part of the price to pay for being a child was having to comply with mealtime rules. The most offensive was that pudding (which was what I believed mealtimes were really about) was withheld until I’d eaten all my vegetables—the cabbage and the cauliflower, the swede, the turnip and, worst of all, the vegetable marrow. Faced with this unreasonable stipulation, I found an illogical pleasure in deferring the moment of vegeconfrontation as long as possible—illogical because, as I well knew, the lure of pudding was always powerful enough for Mother’s will to prevail in the end. Moreover, the longer I delayed the more the veg cooled and the less appetising—if that were possible—they became. Despite this, I continued to hope (ever in vain, though that didn’t discourage me) that if I stalled for long enough, Mother would feel sorry for me and relent.

        One aid to filling in time while I waited and hoped was mashed potato. By dextrous manipulation of knife and fork, I could sculpt a mound of mash into channels through which gravy would percolate, thus converting my plate into a network of rivulets and gravyfalls which flowed into a miniature delta.

        This required a degree of skill, timing and parental forbearance, along with a sufficient supply of the correct building materials. For instance, too much milk in the mash (like instant mashed potato—had Mother ever stooped so low) deprived it of the rigidity required to maintain structural integrity: the gravy tended to undermine the canal banks, which then collapsed and left me no choice but to begin construction anew. Luckily, Mother preferred thin gravy, for if it was too viscous the flow would diminish to a glacial trickle, possibly even ceasing completely. This would derail the timing: it was essential to complete the whole operation before the onset of maternal ire and, even more importantly, before my river system congealed to a clammy, greasy mass whose consumption would then be just as unpleasant as the veg I was trying not to eat.

        My reverie jolts to an end with the klaxon call of the alarm. Thick eddies of dark smoke are rising from the blackened fragments in the frying pan, coalescing in a dense, acrid cloud just above head height and overwhelming the feeble suck of the extractor fan.

        Bruno grabs the pan and quenches it under the cold tap. Now the hissing of steam, the billowing smoke and the screech of the alarm all compete for attention.

        I’m seized by a spasm of intense anger: not only have I made a complete pig’s ear of lunch, but I’ve lost any chance to convince Bruno of my culinary superiority. The only upside is that, distracted as I’ve been, I’ve forgotten to prepare the sauce.

        Bruno must sense how I feel, for he says in a surprisingly soothing voice, ‘Never mind, there’s enough potato left to make some more.’

        Making more is the last thing I want to do right now. I don’t care if I never set eyes on another potato.

        ‘No thanks,’ I reply with as much self-control as I can summon. ‘I’m done with potato. I’ll make some pasta instead.’

        So much simpler—just follow the instructions on the packet…

Roger Chapman (he/him) was born in England during the Second World War, and was fortunate to survive the twin hazards of wartime rationing and British food. It was only his family’s decision to emigrate to New Zealand that saved him from a lifetime of indigestion. He’s not a chef. Or a food critic. Or a gourmet. He’s never invented an original dish (except by accident) or reviewed a restaurant. He’s not even the cook that some of us aspire to be – just the cook that many of us really are. Maybe it's an exaggeration to say that disaster follows him round the kitchen, but he's no longer surprised when his cookery turns out badly.

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