“Who’s peeling the potatoes?” My dad asked the same question every Sunday morning as my brothers and I emerged from our rooms. The boys knew I’d step up if Dad couldn’t see them, so they’d do a vanishing act. I hated doing the peeling, but loved fried potatoes too much to risk another Sunday without them. There had been one morning no one volunteered. That was the Sunday we didn’t have fried potatoes for breakfast. These were not just any fried potatoes. These were Dad’s Fried Potatoes. Drenched in bacon fat and salt, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, they were the ultimate comfort food.
I’d stand at the kitchen sink to my dad’s left as he fried the bacon. He’d leave roughly a quarter cup of fat in the pan and pour the rest into an old green Army cup. My job was to use one of our old wood-handled paring knives to take only the skin in paper thin spirals, wasting none of the potato. As a child of the Depression, my dad had learned early how to stretch a potato to feed his family. My objective was seven peeled potatoes-one for each person and one for the pot. Dad then sliced them right into the pan with a paring knife that matched mine. Next, he’d give the pan a hearty dose of salt, cover it, and turn up the heat.
That was my signal to set the table for the six of us. Dad scooped the finished potatoes into a bowl before cracking five eggs into the pan. Once he’d transferred the scrambled eggs to their own bowl, he’d add a spoonful of bacon fat from the cup into the pan and fry another egg, sunny-side-up. He’d slide it onto his plate and yell, “Come and get it!”
As he ‘got healthy’ as we called it–giving up beer, cigarettes and salt, along with starting a walking regime – fried potatoes became a Christmas only special treat. Even though I’d moved away, I made sure I made it home every Christmas. It was the only way to get Dad’s Fried Potatoes.
I’d helped him prepare that amazing dish most of my life, but I could not recreate it. I’d fry the bacon, pour half the fat into a mug, slice the potatoes into the pan, add the salt, turn up the heat and cover the pan. I’d turn the potatoes, pour water into the lid as I’d watched my dad do, add that to the pan, replace the lid and reduce the heat. The finished dishes were delicious-it’s hard to go wrong with combining potatoes, bacon fat and salt- but the texture was wrong. Every one of my attempts fell short of earning the title of Dad’s Fried Potatoes. After dozens of failures, I gave up trying.
We held our first Christmas after he died at my brother’s new house. Dad had never had the chance to visit it, so I suggested it might be the best place for us to gather. It was a place without the memories of his laughter, of his insistence that he be the first to play with any new toy, the memories of us as a family that haunted every corner. I was afraid we’d never celebrate together again if we didn’t figure out how to do it without him.
Christmas had always been a lavish affair, but it was becoming difficult for my mother to be fully present. My youngest brother, her baby, had been born on a Christmas day and had died by suicide seven years earlier. Now it was just the four of us–Mother, my brothers Bill and Patrick, and me. My goal was to use Christmas as the reason to be together, to celebrate even as we mourned our losses.
Mother and I began a new tradition of collecting mantle villages for Bill–ceramic buildings that lit up with the flip of a switch. We bought decorations, new Christmas stockings, and helped him trim the tree. His house had an enormous stone fireplace with a long mantle and massive hearth. It took up a third of the wall, centered between two tall windows with stonework from the floor to the peak of the cathedral ceiling. We adorned the mantle with the Christmas villages and fake candles with small light bulbs in place of flames, draped it with garland, and screwed hooks into the wood for the stockings. Christmas music played throughout the day, and we hid in our rooms as we wrapped gifts to place under the tree.
Bill was a dedicated night owl who rarely rose before noon, but Christmas morning he surprised us by getting up around 9:00. “Let’s have breakfast first and then unwrap our presents,” he suggested. As we congregated in the kitchen, examining the contents of the refrigerator and pantry, Bill and Pat both looked at me and said, “Fried potatoes.”
“No,” I said. “I can’t. I don’t know how to make Dad’s potatoes. Whatever I fix won’t be the same.” They said they didn’t care, and they ignored my protests. They begged. They even promised to peel the potatoes. I gave in. Mother went silently downstairs to her room.
The boys cleared out of the kitchen as soon as they’d finished the peeling. Still wondering if I could pull it off, I took my time cooking an entire package of bacon. I kept my focus on achieving the perfect crispiness and placed each finished slice on a plate lined with paper towels. I poured the excess fat into a coffee mug before slicing the potatoes into the pan. Next, I sprinkled them with salt, covered the pan and turned up the flame. After a few minutes, I used a spatula to turn the mixture. I needed to continue doing so every few minutes until the potatoes were the perfect shade of brown without letting them burn. As they reached that point and the smell in the kitchen brought me back to childhood, it was time to add the water.
Just then I felt my dad’s presence over my left shoulder. He guided me through adding the right amount of water to the lid and how to drizzle it from the lid into the pan. As the water sizzled and created a cloud of steam, I replaced the cover and reduced the heat. Oh! It clicked. The secret I’d missed, that last magic touch, was the steaming technique. Thank you, Dad. Merry Christmas!
Once the potatoes were ready, I filled four bowls and yelled, “Come and get it!” In less than a minute, Bill and Pat appeared and grabbed a bowl. Mother stayed in her room. As I took the first bite, my throat closed up, and my eyes filled with tears. I was eating Dad’s Fried Potatoes. With the tears now streaming, I looked up at my brothers. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the doorway, they gave each other the ‘what’s her problem’ look, shrugged, and carried their breakfast into the living room. I smiled through my tears as I stood alone in the kitchen cradling a bowl full of memories, a bowl overflowing with my father’s love.
Paula Boyland is a writer, proofreader, and fluid artist living in central Virginia with her husband and their three incorrigible dogs.