One of the less explicable things I do when I’m in England is visit small parish churches. They move me in all sorts of ways that I don’t altogether understand. When I was in Essex a couple of months back I visited Greenstead Church near Chipping Ongar, a fine ancient wooden structure. That's it below.
Inside it was the harvest festival, when churches display nature’s bounty around their altar. I don’t know if things are especially tough in Chipping Ongar, or whether nobody was really trying, but the display looked humble to say the least. See below, and click on it to get the detail.
There’s a pack of leeks that looks like it came straight from the supermarket, and the bag of potatoes that takes up most of the chair doesn’t look as though its contents have come straight from the fields. But at least the potatoes are there in quantity.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with potatoes in church. Some people have claimed that the potato is the forbidden fruit of the good book. They base this around the fact that the potato isn’t mentioned in the bible. That may well be so - I admit that my knowledge of the bible is patchy - but I don’t recall any references to kumquats and kiwi fruit either. Maybe they’re equally forbidden.
I was thinking about this last week when I went out to lunch at the Lady Ox Canteen, in downtown LA. I don’t go out to lunch very often so when I do I always want it to be a special event. And because I’ve been thinking about Don DeLillo lately I was reminded of a passage in his novel Libra when a couple of shady operators have lunch in the Occidental Restaurant in Washington DC, which I thought sounded totally fictional and made up, but turns out to be perfectly real. DeLillo writes, with how many layers of irony I leave it to you to judge, “There were times when Larry thought lunch in a superior restaurant was the highlight of Western man.”
I think Larry has a point. The Lazy Ox is a superior, grown up restaurant, though I don’t think there were any CIA in that day. I ordered something I’d never had before, actually two things: first, shoulder of veal (and sure, I’m not proud of myself for eating veal), but it was pretty wonderful, and it came coated in the darkest, richest, winiest sauce. And underneath it, and I’d never had this either, at least not by this name, was pee wee potato salad.
Now, I know I don’t get out much but I really had never heard of pee-wee potatoes. Certainly they were small, what I’d have called “new potatoes” in England back in the day. And they very perfectly good, but I really hated that name. “Pee wee” it sounds so infantilizing, bringing to mind tater tots and Pee Wee Herman; both perfectly OK in their place, but I’m not sure either of them is a highlight of Western man.
And as I ate my potato salad at the Lazy Ox, wishing I had a little more of it, I started thinking about those faked postcards, more often than not from Idaho, that show giant, monstrous potatoes on the back of trucks or railway wagons, like this:
That’s what a potato should be. And then, imagine my joy when I discovered first, that there’s such a thing as the Idaho Potato Museum, in Blackfoot, Idaho where they have a giant Styrofoam potato that’s as tall as a man. There motto: "We give taters to Out-Of-Staters."
But far more impressive (and which I discovered via the wonderful website RoadsideAmerica.com) is the Spud Drive-In, in the town of Driggs where they’ve recreated one of those postcards, life size (as it were). Like this: