When I went out to dump some kitchen scraps into the compost bin a few weeks ago I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. There were several tall leafy plants topped with delicate purple flowers. I had no idea what they were and so proceeded to look them up on the internet. I found a page listing all purple flowers that grew in New England and with a quick skim through found out that they were potatoes. I must have thrown some old potatoes that I thought were no longer viable into the compost this summer, and they took root in the rich mixture.
A little more internet research and I found out that the best time to harvest potatoes was about two weeks after the flowers finished blooming. This morning I brought out another pail of kitchen scraps and then started to pull up the plants. Some of them had sad-looking mushy lumps at the bottom, but many had beautiful new potatoes.
I picked them and threw the stems, leaves, roots and dirt back into the bin. My treasure is a bowl of red and white potatoes that will make a nice side with dinner tonight. Maybe I will sauté them with some oil and garlic and put them next to a steak. Or, I could make one of my children’s favorites – cheesy potato casserole. I have plenty of options and will surely find some recipe that fits my mood come dinnertime.
However, as I was picking I was thinking about my ancestors during the fall of 1944. They had recently arrived in Theresienstadt after spending the last nine months in the Nazi transit camp of Westerbork in the Netherlands. They had been living on meager rations in Holland, which proceeded to get worse when they arrived in the camp in Czechoslovakia.
If my grandmother had found these plants they would not have been a curiosity. They would not have been a side dish. If my grandmother had found these plants she would have quietly and quickly picked the vitamin rich lumps from the dirt and stuffed them in her pockets. She wouldn’t want to draw attention to herself, as she wouldn’t want anyone else to try to snatch them away. Inside she would have been singing with delight. I found potatoes. I found ten whole, unrotten, potatoes that I can feed my family! These ten potatoes would have been the main course. She would have carefully washed them and cooked them in a pot on a small stove that she would have had to wait for hours to use. She would have guarded them every second and she would have divided them between herself and her husband and her two children and her parents and her in-laws. Ten potatoes for eight people! I’m sure that she would have kept the smallest portion for herself and there would have been no leftover scraps to throw into the compost.