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The virtuous medlar circle
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    In the rabbit hole
a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

November 2006
The lowly potato

by A.C.E. Bauer


I have always been a meat-and-potatoes kind of person.  I like steak rare, stews in satisfying chunks, and potatoes served any way you can cook them.

When I came to the USA, I made a painful discovery:  although french fries (or chips, if you are from a different part of the world) are ubiquitous, good ones are hard to find.  They all seem to be made from reconstituted potatoes.  There are exceptions, of course, but in my travels here, the few good french fries I have eaten stand out.1

This is a far cry from Quebec.  Casse-croûtes, the journeyman fast-food stands that line local highways, also serve enormous quantities of french fries, but it is the rare casse-croûte that has truly bad ones.  Why?  Because the potatoes they use are not reconstituted.  The best stands take whole washed potatoes and cut them fresh. This is not as onerous as it sounds.  They use a clever press, usually bolted into the wall, where you place the potato in a cradle, pull down the lever, and out come freshly cut fries.  Others use frozen pre-cut fries, but very few stands use reconstituted potatoes.

And french fries come in so many flavors!  The quintessential Quebec dish is poutine:  french fries with fresh cheese curds and gravy.  Variations dot the menu—Poutine Italienne (with tomato sauce), BBQ (with barbecue sauce), with sausages or chili con carne, with chicken and peas (sometimes omitting the cheese), or if you’re going upscale, Poutine Bourguignonne.  Unlike good fries, a good poutine is harder to find—it depends on the quality not only of the potatoes, but of the cheese and sauce. 

Quebec’s love affair with poutine is one of the contributing factors to its high rate of heart disease, compared to other provinces.  But such health concerns are trivial when faced with a well-made poutine.  Some people become instant converts—extolling the virtues of a tasty sauce over heavenly fries, and just the right amount of partially melted cheese curds.  I am not one of those.  I will grudgingly try a fry covered in sauce, nod in approval when the gravy exudes umami or the cheese tastes particularly fresh, but to me, they mask what truly matters:  a well fried potato.

I have often told people that I wouldn’t mind living off potatoes—and studies have shown that I literally could, if I were so inclined.  One of nature’s whole foods, they have every nutrient you need. A chef will also tell you that they are incredibly versatile—you can make appetizers, soups, salads, main dishes, side dishes, even desserts from potatoes.  And if you’re looking for a drink, well, there is always vodka.  But truthfully, I find a good plain potato, cooked right, to be more satisfying than almost any other dish. 

Of course, a life with nothing but potatoes would be rather boring.  You do need a little color, to balance out the plate.  That is why God, in his infinite wisdom, invented steak.


1. Sadly, good mashed potatoes are equally rare in U.S. diners—for the same awful reason.  There must be a special place in Hell for whoever invented reconstituted potatoes.

A.C.E.’s Favorite Mashed Potatoes

1 kg (2 lbs) Yukon Gold potatoes (or any other potato you like)

500 g (1 lb.) onions, chopped fine (sweet onions, such as Vidalias, are best, but your regular yellow onion will work)

4 tablespoons canola oil, or other oil without much flavor

Salt and pepper, to taste

Peel, then boil the potatoes in salt water.  While they boil, sauté the onions in the oil until they get brown and have a few charred bits.  Once the potatoes are tender, drain them.  With a potato masher, mash potatoes with onions and oil, but don't over-mash—some pieces of unmashed potato add to the texture and flavor. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Will make a side-dish for 4.



A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in college, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages. Her novel, NO CASTLES HERE, will be published by Random House Children’s Books in autumn 2007.

Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec. You can read more of her musings at, a community blog of children’s-books authors whose debut novels will be published in 2007.

In the Rabbit Hole began in December 2005
A list
Copyright won't give you an hourly wage
How to ruin TV
A love story
Breathing water and pine
"It's just a children's book"
Reconciling to the Impossible
Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com

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"The lowly potato" copyright © November 2006 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 - 2006