Les Pommes de Terre: Apples of the earth, or apples of my eye?
Not terribly long ago, I spent two and a half months peeling potatoes.
Okay, okay; I didn’t spend every minute of that time only peeling potatoes. I spent three hours, from morning until lunchtime five days a week scrubbing, peeling, rinsing, slicing, julienning, boiling, mashing, puréeing, frying, scooping marbled-sized balls, and forming son-of-a-bitch-fragile bird-nests out of potatoes.
There were large potatoes, small potatoes, watery potatoes, drier potatoes, yellow potatoes, white potatoes, beige potatoes, starchy potatoes, dirty potatoes, clean potatoes, sprouted potatoes, bitter potatoes, lumpy potatoes, smooth potatoes, round potatoes, oblong potatoes, potatoes that burned too easily, and potatoes that stood up defiantly against hot oil. The potatoes were delivered by a man who always, no matter what, complained about the delivery truck parking rules on the Boulevard. He arrived with a 25kg sack or two of potatoes a couple of times a week, and every single time we were informed about that morning’s parking conditions.
I had drawn the name of the restaurant by chance, and other classmates who had been there before me warned, “You’ll hate it, they don’t let you do anything.” ”All you’re going to do is peel potatoes and clean crabs.” ”It is the worst place on the face of this earth," was the basic picture that was painted.
My first day there was the cooks’ first day back from a week of vacation, and everything had to be made again from scratch. There were no clients that day, only prep work. Silent, hot, and at 3p.m. we each ate a sandwich.
"See that cart with a 60lb. sack of potatoes? And see that giant plastic bucket? Fill it up, please." And so I did.
"And now, with all those potatoes you just peeled, take this melon-baller and two gallon-sized buckets and fill them up with marble-sized balls." And so I did, and blisters formed, broke open, and bled all over my right hand.
"And then, when you’ve used up all those peeled potatoes to make potato balls, peel more to fill up the bucket again." And so I did, with Band-Aids and a glove.
The next day - and the rest of the week - was torturous, as open blisters and wet potatoes are a poor combination. I couldn’t open or close my fist all the way. Band-aids or tape lasted only a few minutes before becoming sodden, and the friction between my hand and the peeler or melon-baller reduced latex gloves to shreds. Friday evening I went to a pharmacy and bought a twelve-dollar pack of six extra-healing bandages, taped up my hand, and left them there until Monday morning.
Ugh, this was going to be a long few months.
Within a few days, however, I fell into a routine. First thing in the morning, I’d grab a giant metal bowl and strainer, a mandoline, and a generous pile of peeled potatoes. I’d julienne the heck out of them on the mandoline, rinse and strain them a couple of times to get rid of some starch, and start frying them batch by batch. While those potatoes were frying, I’d grab another couple of buckets, a melon-baller, and more peeled potatoes (of a different kind, of course), and I’d fill up a gallon-sized bucket of tiny potato marbles.
Scoop downward, twist, knock on the side of the bucket to flick the potato out of the scoop. Repeat several hundred times. With enough patience, it became a sort of morning meditation. Repetition. The slowly diminishing pile of potatoes and the slowly increasing piles of potato-balls and scraps became an almost relaxing way of passing the morning, every time a little bit faster, neater, and better than the time before. And then, afterwards, the frantic yet controlled peeling of potato after potato; It’s the most basic of basic kitchen tasks that can always be improved upon: hold it this way and not that way, peel it in this direction and not that direction, peel it it fewer strokes to save a few seconds per potato. It sounds trivial, but learning to use even seconds and centimeters more consciously will help in every single kitchen task that you do. Instead of being glad for a distraction from such boring work, I would become irritated if I had to do something else first, or if I was interrupted by another task. This became my time; time to think and reflect in near silence (this was the type of kitchen where no one talked…ever) with only the music of kitchen-sounds in the background.
Because here’s the thing: as much fun as it is to make all kinds of recipes with all kinds of ingredients at home, as refined and elaborate as restaurant dishes can be, and as high-tech and sleek as modern equipment is designed, the fact is that most day-to-day restaurant work is very repetitive. The same ingredients need to be continuously prepared, the same fish for needs to be cleaned and filleted, the same pasta dough needs to be kneaded and rolled out. Again and again and again. And again. You might have just loved that dinner you had last night, and you might have thought how much you’d love to make it at home someday, but those cooks cooked the exact same thing last week, last month, and even, perhaps, every single day for the last year. The charm wears off, but you can’t let the monotony become negative. Some of my favorite basic tasks these days? Peeling prawns, slicing onions, mincing garlic, kneading pasta dough, whipping cream or egg whites, butchering chickens, making pastry cream, and, of course, brandishing a vegetable peeler and going to town on some fruit of the earth. I don’t know why I love each of them, but I do know that with out learning to absolutely adore and take pride in these jobs, it’s not possible to accomplish too much in the kitchen.
A lot of young people (myself included) skip from kitchen to kitchen nowadays, seeing countless new techniques and ways to work, but when it comes to the tediousness that settles in after a time, it’s a difficult adjustment to make. But I love routines. I love repetitive tasks and organization and finding joy in the seemingly trivial details.
And now, more than 1,900 pounds later, I love potatoes.
"Yes, um, the answer would be, um, Wedding Season?" "Bingo! I'm gonna go get my suit. Oh, now, who are we this time?"
One might say that I’ve become somewhat of an expert in the field of Basque nuptials this spring season, and sure as shootin, it’s the truth. Back in my last year or so living in Athens, I attended weddings aplenty, usually of people from within the same larger group of friends, and all tending towards the same theme of rustic Southern charm, each one more adorable and precious than the last. I’m really not sure how it came to be, but every single wedding I’ve been to is just the most fun wedding ever. I mean, what’s not to love about a huge gigantic party with all your friends because two of your friends are insanely head-over-heels for each other? While the whole (gulp) wedding industry with all its picture-perfect and marketable charm sends me running for the hills, weddings themselves, the actual nuptials and parties, are one of my most favorite things.
It had been a hot minute since I’d been to a wedding (perhaps yours, C.P.?) and last month, I attended three…in the span of three weeks. They ran the gamut from a full-on noon to four a.m. ordeal to a simple city-hall no-frills affair, and I adored each and every one. Something important to note is that while these might not have been typical Basque weddings, the thing that all of them had in common is that they were very relaxed and without wedding planners or coordinators or whatever running amuck orchestrating the whole “event” down to the last detail; the bride and groom were actually able to enjoy the entire day without worrying that everything was perfectly timed and fit for a magazine spread. There were no props or themes, no bridesmaids or groomsmen, no planning multiple activities months ahead of time, no over-designing. It’s not that huge, giant, perfectly calculated weddings aren’t fun (because as I said before and I’ll say it again: all weddings are the most fun ever), it’s just that they’re not really my thing. The atmosphere of these weddings, however, well, I loved it.
The first was a small family-only wedding held in a tiny Navarran pueblo, and the bride was Iñaki’s cousin. The ceremony was on a hot and sunny Friday afternoon in the town hall, and as we made the short (as in, one block) trek from their grandmother’s house, all eyes were on the well-heeled crowd (although, well-heeled didn’t apply to all: it was originally a super-casual affair, but because Iñaki was going to wear dark jeans and a button-down regardless, and because he couldn’t care less about what his sister and cousins wear, I never got the memo that there had been a wardrobe change. We walked up and all his female cousins were in cocktail dresses and heels, and I was wearing dark jeans and flat shoes. Oops.). After lots of hugs and hellos, we filed upstairs in the town hall, the happy couple sat on either side of a councilman who read them their rights and duties according to the Spanish constitution, they exchanged rings and a kiss, signed their marriage license, and that was that.
Back out to the plaza we went, into the hot afternoon sunlight, and we blew some bubbles and threw some rice. The bride and groom’s t-shirt-clad friends gathered around with champagne to congratulate them, townspeople young and old (and one very drunk) watched the action from the edges of the plaza, I tried to somehow disguise the fact that I was wearing jeans, and soon enough it was time to eat. They’d rented out a small tavern-ish bar in the town and set up folding tables inside. Beer and wine and plastic cups; plates of jamón, cheese, chorizo, and olives: it was a pre-reception of sorts for the those who wouldn’t be going to the dinner later that evening. I even spotted the aforementioned town drunk wander in and take advantage of the open tap.
After closing up shop there, everyone piled into cars and drove the half hour to Pamplona for dinner. And oh, what a dinner. We went to one of Pamplona’s best restaurants and overwhelmed the place. All of the cousins and all of us parejas were seated at one long table. Many bottles and many courses went down, and many shouts of “¡Vivan los novios!” were sounded. As the last of the desserts were sent out, a gigantic Mexican mariachi singer appeared and commenced singing, strumming and sweating old Mexican and Spanish songs. We weren’t sure if he’d been hired for the wedding, or if he was one of those musicians who goes from restaurant to restaurant for tips, and just decided that the wedding was such fun that he’d stay.
Parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles slowly left at around 1a.m. and the rest of us young spring chickens headed out to find some fun in Pamplona. …The rest may or may not be somewhat of a blur…
Wedding number two was set in a small chapel on a cliff as equally striking as this one just to the east. The groom was one of Iñaki and Beñat’s college friends, and he and his bride had decided on an all-day (and night) fiesta. One thing I especially loved about this wedding was that it was obviously planned by the two of them, and not just the bride (or wedding planner..). When we asked Harri later, he said that while his leading lady had made a lot of the decisions, he stood firm when it came to three things (and what great things they were).
Lucía, Beñat, me, and Iñaki. Fantastic Four.
After a sweaty and un-airconditioned drive to the nearby town, we stepped out of the car and into terrific gusts of wind. I suppose that’s what happens when you have your wedding up on a beautiful seaside cliff, but our dresses weren’t such big fans. As people arrived, we saw the groom’s Great Idea #1: a couple of pony kegs and plastic cups on a table outside of the church, just enough for everyone to have a hearty swig before the ceremony.
He may look disgruntled in some pictures here, but I assure you he’s a very fine chap and is actually rather pleasant company. I quite like him.
The chapel was tall and narrow, and we were ushered up to the second balcony, risking life and limb to climb a creaky wooden staircase with rather, um, bendy, wooden boards for steps. The railing was about four inches away from the bench we were perched on, assuring that absolutely everyone down below got a lovely view of the ladies…hardy har har…
On the main balcony below us was a 20-strong group of flamenco musicians and singers. The bride’s family has roots in Andalucía, and this troupe sang half a dozen beautiful and haunting songs throughout the ceremony. It’s not something I thought I’d ever see at a Basque wedding, but it was lovely.
Lucía, Beñat, Julen, Cristina.
Now, here you’ll see the bride and groom standing before their good friend, who is schooled in the art of traditional Basque dance. He leapt and twirled, accompanied by a flautist, as I was told is tradition at many weddings. While I (and the rest of the guests) assumed their tight-lipped expressions to be those of holding back emotions at such a sweet gesture, the truth is, the dude’s pants had split during a particularly high kick, he tried to ignore it, and the couple was trying to avert their eyes, hold back laughter, and remain somewhat serious during the otherwise solemn moment.
Then confetti firecrackers were lit, pictures were taken, the beer was polished off, and we were bused down to the town below.
Iñaki, Julen, Beñat. Dapper gentlemen.
The lunch and reception was held in a port-side restaurant with mountain views, boat views, marsh views, and an open bar. Great Idea #2 came next: in addition to some of the most delicious (and abundant!) hors d’ouevres imaginable, there was a man with a sharp knife and a leg of jamón. He cut slices as thin as smoking paper that disappeared instantly. Should I ever tie the knot, you can be darn sure there will be a man cutting up a cured pig’s leg at the reception, if not before and during the ceremony as well.
Lucía and Beñat were given the bride & groom cookies from the top of the cake. Although they swear they won’t be the next couple to take the plunge…
Drinks and dancing followed lunch. A caricature artist sketched improbable drawings of all the guests. A hawaiian-shirt, bell-bottoms-wearing DJ sang his heart out into his headpiece microphone (for real, y’all). Boyfriends snuck outside for cigarettes. The heavens opened up and poured down into the port outside, filling the floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall windows with gray.
When the downpour paused for a moment, we searched for jackets and shoes, got refills from the bar, and headed out into the muggy evening. After walking a few minutes outside of town, we arrived at a farmhouse that the couple had rented for the late afternoon and night. The ample porch was covered and supplied with chairs and benches, the downstairs was cleared out except for a well-stocked bar and bathrooms, and the two giant rooms and accompanying balconies upstairs played host to a second and extended round of the singing DJ.
As the lunch was held at about three, and as we went over to the farmhouse at about eight, a few concerned souls asked about whether there would be vittles for later in the night. “Not to worry…oh, there will be food later…” was the groom’s response, and sure enough, as night fell, the same hamburger & fries food truck that can be found at all the local pueblo fiestas pulled in next to the house and stayed there into the wee hours of the morning. Great Idea #3: greasy burgers, greasy potatoes, and every unmarried guy’s new wedding reception plan.
Julen. Iñaki’s oldest friend is my newest.
Wedding number three was held right here in San Sebastian and extended over several (loosely planned, very relaxed) weeks. Ane and Erlantz got married, but it was an intentional non-wedding of sorts. I ran into Ane one Friday afternoon and she said casually, “Oh, and we’ve decided that the wedding will be next Friday at the city hall…we’re going to have a party after, so come if you want.” That next Friday I got a text message that was something along the lines of “Hey, it’s this afternoon at 6:30. Um, I guess everyone is just meeting outside.” Wonderful.
I threw on a pair of jeans, shoved my wallet and phone in my pockets, and walked the six minutes to the city hall steps. A group of their friends was waiting outside, and we all went in together; the ceremony had already started, but it was ok. Parents, grandparents, sibling and other relatives were on either side of the aisle, and a city official officiated. They each said their piece, everyone sang a song, and they exchanged what looked like a secret handshake and a small tchotchke instead of rings.
We waited outside with a few plastic bags of rice and assaulted them as is appropriate. Ane’s mom handed her a bouquet to hold during a few pictures. And that was it.
When it looks like this outside, decorating anything is really unnecessary.
The “reception” was a semi-circle of tables out on the sunny Boulevard with two harried bartenders carrying out tray after tray of pintxos and wine and beer. Friends who couldn’t make it to the ceremony stopped by for a while, relatives with small kids headed home after a drink or two, and to make it even sweeter, by sheer coincidence, the couple’s preschool teacher (they’ve been friends since age three) happened to pass by and had no idea that the two were getting married.
Me, Lucía, Ane.
After the sun went down and parents went home, we all went to a bar above the port for drinks, sitting out on the staircase under streetlights. The groom changed into a t-shirt, other friends came and left, and we just whiled away some time on a muggy summer night.
La novia + bugs in the streetlight.
A few weeks later Beñat, Lucía, Ane, and Erlantz come over for dinner, per usual on a Sunday night. I’d made a cherry-custard tart and Iñaki grabbed some extra dough and made bride and groom cookies. We declared it their official wedding cake. In exchange for a bite, they had to pose for a picture. Sense the excitement.
Another couple of weeks passed, and the “official” party happened. There is a mountain overlooking the city with a giant statue of Jesus on top, ruins of a fort throughout, and a makeshift bar halfway up. They rented out the place one Friday night and had dinner there. I finished up at the restaurant late, and as the gates to the mountain close at sundown, Iñaki and I had to be crafty. We scrambled up some rocks and over and around a tall gate behind a restaurant and began a pitch-black, 1:30a.m. walk up the mountain. Rising up above the port at night and seeing the lights across the bay was something that few Donostians have seen at night, and though climbing a hill, then a staircase, then a densely wooded trail, and then a tunnel was terrifying, the views from above and hearing the noise of the city down below was worth it, despite being startled numerous times by disgruntled and disheveled stray cats.
We popped up out of the tunnel and into the front of the bar. It’s a simple kind of place, the type where the bartender told us to “Hold on, lemme wait until this song finishes.” before he made us a couple of mojitos (and before he took the straw out of a half-empty glass, rinsed it, and put it in Iñaki’s drink. Hey, we’re amongst friends.). Random dishes, half-empty bags of chips, a few scattered fridges with beer and ice cream. Moldy walls, plastic chairs and tables, old stereo speakers set out on the steps. I’ve been here during the day, but nothing compared to being up there at night.
After it got cold enough and late enough, we had to trek back down the mountain, and being tipsy walking downhill with twenty other people is much more fun than being sober with one person walking uphill if you simply must be out in the woods at night (woods where you know for a fact that certain people have set up camp, as it were). We went around to the other side where there is a sort of hidden set of stairs made of rocks dangerously close to the edge. One by one we all climbed up and over and made it without a scratch. A fine way to close out a very non-wedding wedding.
All in all, I have to say it’s been nice to be back in wedding-mode (though not, to be very clear, my wedding-mode. Don’t worry, Dad.).
Sunday lunch with Iñaki’s family. Rainy-then sunny-then rainy day in July…typical. We sat on the glass-walled porch and watched the port and pueblo down below. We drank very, very much Albariño, and we ate. Oh, did we ever eat.
We ate jamón de bellota (the best…), broiled scallops, tiny clams, and prawns. We ate langoustines and grilled monkfish and creamy fish soup. We ate a bloody and noble steak, we ate a grilled lobster, and then we ate dessert.
Soggy yet toasty torrijas (like French toast…sort of) with ice cream, cheesecake with berry marmalade, and mine: Idiazabal cheese-quince-walnut ice cream, the Basque dessert trinity in frozen form. Divine.
(This was the view…from the bathroom window. Seriously.)