I spent last week driving forth and back across the patch of land that stretches from southern Idaho into eastern Oregon. It is a patch of land that over the years has spawned Built to Spill and many, many potatoes; and a rather long patch land, even if rambled through at 75 plus miles per hour, and a rather open one too. It leaves the mind plenty of room to wander. And to pondering the poeticality of the potato.
The potato’s best feature, poetically speaking, is probably its intimate connection with the earth. Not (necessarily) the capital E Earth, but rather the more appropriately lower-cased e, earth that is the odic synonym of soil; dirt. But no, this is not an essay about the potato. Besides, others have already made a hard to top compelling case for a subterranean vegetable:
The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.
Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.
The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…
The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot.
The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.
The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.
(-Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume)
Fine. I’ve already made my case for the chile pepper here. Although it grows above ground, it can certainly with the intensity of the beet or the ferverishness of the radish. But enough vegetology. It’s not about the fruit. It’s about the soil it grows in.
Terroir. The notion that the climate and particularly the soil a food grows imparts unique flavor characteristics on the food grown in a region. Wine grapes. Coffee beans. Tea leaves. Sweet onions. Probably poatatoes and beets. Humans, metaphorically.
So, an ode to the poetic dirt that flavors us:
The Life of Significant Soil
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? Have you?
reckon’d the earth?
The soil is this,
that thou dost common grow.
All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
The poetry of the earth is never dead.
But every climate, every soil,
Must bring its tribute, great or small.