The secret to making perfect fried potatoes is to let them steam in the pan.
A deep sauté pan is best, something wide and dense, ceramic for a perfect, uniform heat. I usually would coat the pan with olive oil, but any oil that can withstand high temperatures will do. Golden potatoes are probably the most desirable choice; their skin tends to be soft and even, the kind of texture that gives in to the tooth. Red potatoes are good in summer, or purple for when the desire for color outweighs the need for convention. Chop the potatoes into roughly half inch thick cubes, and place them in a warm pan with the oil. When you start to hear the quiet whisper of the oil telling secrets, and the potatoes grow slightly opaque, add a half cup of water, pop on the lid, and steam for a few minutes.
I decided to stop drinking boxed wine after college. I figured that as an adult, I should switch to bottles full time. Bottles allowed for a sense of gravitas and importance whereas sucking the dark liver of Franzia boxes was — in a word — classless.
A couple of times every week, I would waltz into Wine and Spirits and get a bottle of Sutter Home. The big 1.75 L bottles that were usually $9.99 ($10.69 after tax). Sometimes I’d get whiskey when the occasion called for it: enough money to treat myself, good news, bad news, Jack being on sale that month.
At a yard sale that year, I found a huge goblet wine glass with a violet tint that I drank out of on a daily basis. It was my favorite find next to the amethyst necklace that my friend had bought for me that same day. I remember touching the stone, watching the sun reach through the lighter parts, and deepen the purples. My friend picked it up and held it to my neck.
“For you, for your birthday.”
It wasn’t my birthday, but he was the prince of small pleasures, always giving me something to smile about, helping me to feel a part of the world.
When Thanksgiving rolled around, I was estranged from my family as I often was. Both of my parents were abusive, and being their overly sensitive gay daughter, most holidays I was a non-entity. That Thanksgiving was no different. I worked in public schools, and the kids were off for fall break, which meant I didn’t have to be at school for what seemed to be a decadent stretch of time. My friend, the one who bought me the necklace, lived around the corner. We went to Giant Eagle to get food for the holiday.
With roughly $15 left in my account, I realized I was going to have to spend the last of my money on something to eat. I shuffled past the aisles of bread and ice cream with my hands in my pocket, I didn’t want to walk around the entire store and expose myself to all the things I couldn’t afford. Being broke was not only humiliating, it was painful. My friend stopped by the onions and juggled a few soft yellow ones, my eyes followed their prolific arch from air to hand. I couldn’t ask for help again.
In the center of the store was a huge display:
“Potatoes ($5 for 10lb) buy one get one free!”
I could get a bag for free. Ten pounds. That would be twenty pounds of potatoes for $5.
I grabbed two bags and hoisted them above my head laughing
“We’ll eat like kings!”
Potatoes are almost a perfect meal. In the 90s and early 2000’s they got a bad rap for being “bad” starches and empty calories. While they maybe aren’t the healthiest when fried in oil, roasted, baked, with large cloves of garlic, pink salt, and sweet onion; quartered and placed in a lentil stew; mashed with butter and chives, they are close to sex.
When the potatoes start to soften a bit, take off the lid and flip them with a wide spatula. By now, the bottom potatoes should have gotten a little crispy and brown. Flipping the sections like pancakes, plop the white side onto the pan, adding oil if needed, and reach for the spice cabinet. My favorite combination is salt, pepper, chili powder, paprika, and garlic. I have strong wrists, so I have the ability to do that chefs toss; to rock your wrist and hand like an ocean, pulling the steaming potatoes toward you like a tide. Repeat this motion two or three times, making sure every square inch was coated with spice and caramelizing flecks of garlic. Returning the pan to the burner, now you can pace the kitchen cleaning, waiting for the heat to penetrate each core until they are ready.
I got home with my potato bounty and set to work. The first thing I made was fried potatoes with a splat of hummus for protein. They were hot and delicious, the crunchy skin opened and exposed a tender, silky center. The garlic hummus provided a sharp, tangy counterpart to the savory richness of the potatoes, coated in oil, dashed with browning spices. I stabbed them with my fork and swooped it into the hummus, licking my fingers of all the droppings and drippings that would inevitably fall from my fork or linger off the edge of the plate. I can only measure spices with my eyes, so I was a little heavy on the salt, but I washed the taste out of my mouth with a glass of almost-bad red wine.
Looking at the half-full bottle made my stomach turn more than the stunning vinegar-y quality of the wine. I would have to go back out tomorrow. The apartment I picked was near a bus line. Of the three buses I could take, all of them led to either a state store or a grocery that sold alcohol. I could go and get home in under 20 minutes if I planned everything right. When dinner was over, I used my fingers to wipe the plate clean and washed it in the sink, making sure to clear the stove and countertops free from the shower of colorful spices and splattered fat. I poured myself another glass and walked up the stairs to the converted closet that was my bedroom.
I had to drink to fall asleep. If I didn’t, I would shake for hours. Hallucinations and the ramblings of an unkempt mind would take me. The most common paranoia I had was of thousands of bugs crawling up my legs and into my vagina to eat away at my from the inside. If they couldn’t find a way in there, they would travel up to my head and burrow through my ears, finding shelter inside my skull. My body would alternate seamlessly between hot and cold as I imagined the worst things imaginable happening to me or happening to me again. I’d become claustrophobic, feeling choked by the stories of my imagination run amok, and my face would swell with the impending promise of tears. I would have to drink them away, to lull my body into a breathless state that felt slightly above comatose. No matter how much I drank there was never a full night of sleep, I got up often and begrudgingly, either to go to the bathroom or to walk downstairs and check the locks four or five times. I slept but I never rested. I closed my eyes and battled myself.
If you find that your potatoes are undercooked, putting them back in the pan to finish is fine. Alternatively, spread them evenly on a baking sheet and bake at 350 for about ten minutes. They should come out crispy.
The biggest problem with pan frying potatoes is undercooking them. Sometimes, they look golden but when met with the spear of a fork, they are raw at the center. Bitter, almost caustic. I once had a lover that ate raw potatoes for enjoyment. I laughed at her as we chopped them together in my kitchen, listening to the wet crisp of her crunching, exhilarated by the nearness of her. In the morning, we ate leftovers and kissed against my kitchen wall. I wanted more of her always.
Weeks later, after she’d left me, I tasted one on my own. She wasn’t wrong that it tasted like cold dirt. She also wasn’t wrong for leaving.
It didn’t take long for eating fried potatoes for every meal to get old. I almost always had lentils in the house, so I’d make a soup with green lentils, potatoes, and onions. Once, hungry and a little buzzed, I decided to make pierogies. Using a basic dough of flour, water, and oil, I mashed potatoes with ground sage, salt, and pepper. I rolled the dough out to my best ability with a bottle of old Yellowtail. It stretched and puckered back into itself each time, refusing my strength and blind determination. When the dough was finally wide enough, I floured the rim of a wine glass and cut circles to hold a dollop of filling. The pierogies were boiled in salted water and finished with a sear in a pan covered in butter. Much to my dismay, the dough was too thick and just about flavorless. Chewing it hurt my jaw and the taste coated my throat, so I sucked the mashed potato middle out and washed it down with whiskey.
It was late now, and I didn’t have the coordination or wherewithal to make something more substantial. I was drunk, which meant I was nearing sleep or mania. Swirling the liquor in my glass, I stood in front of the wall length mirror in the living room, teasing my gray hairs, watching my face fade as my vision blurred. In those moments before complete oblivion, it felt like I could peel the skin from under my eyes away in chunks, and it wouldn’t bleed. It was that kind of power, the mortified strength. Numbness soaked through to my teeth and oiled my gums, my tongue felt swollen and buzzing, my eyes were two glass bowls hanging on to the sockets. I laughed at the dancing ghoul, pulling her lips back in what could have been a scream.
You can dress up fried potatoes with homemade sour cream, shiitake bacon, and some fresh chives. You can eat them with beans and eggs, fold them in a tortilla with tofu scramble, add them in a hash with sausage. If you have the money and make the choice to spend it on more food items, you can make even the most basic ingredients special. Giving time and love to your body through food and the company of friends. Not giving in to the dregs of loneliness, chiffonading herbs in the kitchen by sunlight.
A typical day off would go like this for me:
Saturday. I wake up around 7am, brush my teeth, and water my plants until it was time to walk to the grocery store. I would hit Whole Foods first to get my specialty items. Then, I walk up the stairs and across the shopping center, down another flight of stairs and cross a busy street to get to Trader Joes. There it was fresh produce, milk, and juice. Then, it’s across the busy street and back up the stairs where I would enter the shopping center, arriving at the liquor store around 9:08 am. Arriving exactly when it opened seemed like something an alcoholic would do.
Being the woman alone at 9 am browsing the wine section was a bad look, but arriving a few minutes later was hardly a problem.
I never stayed long because I knew what I needed. Sometimes I’d walk past the “Staff’s Choice” selections, lingering on descriptions of apricots, chocolates, or tobacco. I always wanted to be one of those women laughing while sipping a glass of Malbec. I wanted to be glamorous and in control. Perusing the aisles with my wife, trying to decide what wine would pair best with portobello steaks, leaving together in our Prius. There was never any wife, we couldn’t stand at the island with our noses stuffed in flutes telling the other what notes we were getting. My only companion was whatever bottles rattled in my cart, and the dwindling second bag of potatoes at home.
I’d grab two bottles of red and cheap rum or vodka. I’d only drink white wine if it was offered to me or if it was on sale, because it was too close to water and I didn’t understand care. After graciously checking out while avoiding eye contact with the cashier, I’d cross the street and get there just in time to catch the bus home.
On days off, I’d spend the day on the porch writing poems with a glass of wine by my side. If it was hot out — smothered in sky — I would undoubtedly have to fish out a few intoxicated gnats. Their bodies floated to the top, so drawn in by the promise of sweetness that they defied their natural order. Instead they dove in, and drowned.
I got the money for booze from friends. Always under the guise of needing it for rent or for food. I would avoid the traditional addict ticks and sit with my hands folded, far enough away from me on the table to make it look like I wasn’t pleading. It was usually the friend that got me the amethyst necklace because, unlike most men I’d known, he was purely good. So sweet and generous, a poem for a tongue. He was one of my only true friends, and I needed him.
When I wasn’t asking for money, we would spend long afternoons together painting large self portraits, reading our poetry over coffee and hummus heavy snacks. We’d play board games late at night until I fell asleep on the floor or in a chair, awoken only to walk home in the dark, my music drowning out the bug calls and city sounds. One of the last times I borrowed from him, he held the money in his hands and said with a raw sadness in his eyes:
“Will you use this for food, or will you use this for alcohol?”
When the potatoes were gone, there was only a fine film of dirt in the bag. The last few had gone soft and green-eyed, beautifully milky. I fried them in coconut oil and ate them dry. I was out of onions and the last of my lentils were occupied by pantry moths.
School was back in session and I had to be in by 7am, marching the halls and taking troubled students out of in-school suspension and into my classroom to complete their work one-on-one. There was never time to eat at school, or during the after school program; the children’s lunches were regularly bologna covered in half-melted, cold, cheese slices so I wouldn’t eat for ten hours. After an hour long bus ride home it was straight for the fridge, drinking until I was full, the liquids swashing in my stomach as it urged and swelled with each downed glass. I alternated between looking pregnant or ill. I’d sit up with my back against the base of my fold-out couch and drink until my body gave me the signal that she couldn’t anymore. It was usually a rather poignant gag reflex that seized every time I raised the glass to my lips. I’d imagine my insides like one of those illustrations that show how much of a human is comprised of water. I had filled myself just under the nose with wine and my body could not hold another drop. I was stained red and bloodless, a collection of nightmares held together by one fruitless desire.
I’d wake up in the morning, usually without a hangover. Polishing off the last sip of something, I’d run my tongue over my teeth and feel the sugar fuzz set up heavily on the enamel. My day would go on in mourning and in wait. I wanted to be in the physical space of “home”: The place where I paid rent and slept. More aptly, I wanted to be at home in my absence. To be at work meant I had to be present, at least present enough to remember what a prepositional phrase was or to explain algebraic equations. To be a friend, a lover, a human, meant to be sober for small increments of time, and I resented a world that would make me live under those conditions. I couldn’t live like that so I hovered in a space as close to death as I could. Too non-committal to kill my self, but not brave enough to live.
The drink was always inevitable. I came home to it like a soulmate, building my life to please it but always came to a crashing failure because I couldn’t stop. The needy, codependent lover is no one’s daydream. The one that checks the phone waiting for you to text back, not above walking past your home, peaking in the windows to see if you’re there, crying at the suggestion that you don’t love me in the full, encompassing way I love you. What I would give, what I would surrender — it made no difference, I was always the ghoul ready to peel away the striking fat of her cheeks. The drowning gnat in a howl red river.
With a suddenness I wasn’t prepared for, Christmas arrived. I would not be me going to my parent’s house to spend the night before Christmas Eve decorating cookies with my mother, so I prepared an arsenal of cheap wine and bottom shelf liquor to get me through the break. A few of my friends from college came into town to visit their families, and one Sunday morning, they all ended up at my place. We made a huge breakfast of pancakes, tofu scramble, toast, bacon, eggs, and home fries. I made the home fries and pancakes and my friends were impressed by how perfectly browned my potatoes were.
As I received the compliments I smiled and made sure everyone had a full plate, playing the perfect hostess and infallible friend. I shared my secret: sear, steam, and crisp until golden brown.I couldn’t tell them that I had become an expert because I had spent weeks prior surviving off of pan-fried starch. I wiped heat from my brow with the back of my hand and felt the weight of a dirty towel still hanging on my shoulder. I knew that once they left, I wouldn’t leave the apartment for days. We held hands and took pictures, in love with each other’s presence and laughter. Glad to be together again. I sat back in my chair, vodka separating the freshly squeezed orange juice from itself, the grin across my lips fading and waiting for release.⚡
Edited by Carmen