French Fries and Fallow Fields

Rick Barnes
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Recently, while motorcycling west on Route 2 into Conception Bay South, the air blowing by my face startled me with a message from my childhood. Like Marcel Proust sampling his Madeleine cake soaked in linden tea, segments of the past came rushing up to me, unbidden. The trigger was the smell of freshly broken ground, and I soon caught sight of its source sliding by on my right, reddish soil ploughed into rows of furrows ready for planting.

The chapter of the past that opened up for me went back at least 45 years. My father was the youngest of a big Protestant family that grew vegetables and kept animals in Spruce Hill Road, Topsail. That lifestyle had all but vanished when I came along, but every spring the family got together to plant potatoes in the "lower garden," a section of land that has long since been given over to the lawns and basements of housing development.

But back then, every spring, the three brothers and a sister who lived near their old Topsail homestead would reunite with their parents to plant potatoes. Three civil servants and an insurance adjuster took a couple of precious annual leave days they had hoarded, traded their white shirts, business suits and skirts for coveralls and a chance to work "at the ground." The third generation, late boomers like myself, came along to help out where we could, sowing the field.

The lower garden, perhaps half an acre accessible by an understood right of way through property owned by several branches of the Barnes family, was bordered on one side by narrow, dusty Spruce Hill Road. The garden was fenced with weathered wood and the perimeter was lined with mottled stones of all sizes, which I later realized had been dumped there after they had been painstakingly dug from the earth by earlier generations of planters.

These man-made barriers of brittle stone held the heat of the sun even on cool spring days. Miraculously, the stones supported the growth of birch and dogberry trees that sported just as much exposed root as trunk and limbs.

It was as if these displaced, disfigured trees waited at the edge for a chance to re-seed the fertile soil of the clearing. Today, all around Conception Bay, you can see many abandoned gardens delineated by borders of stones, some sprouting young trees instead of the vegetables they once produced.

Health food
On planting day, the division of labour was clear. Aunt Elsie and grandmother prepared a huge meal for all, and they would assist with planting after "dinner" was cleared away. The midday meal was not lunch, but a full dinner with pots of gravy, meat and vegetables, including, of course, potatoes. I read somewhere that a diet rich in potatoes prevented appendicitis. I don't know if there is any truth to that, but there is no appendicitis in our family. In fact, many of my relatives chewed potatoes well into their 90s without seeing the inside of a hospital.

These hardy tubers, known for growing well in climates with short days, kept the indigenous people of the Andes Mountains healthy for 6,000 years before the Spanish dragged potato seeds back home in 1565. Originally intended for the menus of Spanish prisons and asylums, potatoes gradually spread throughout Europe, with the exception of France.

The French paid dearly for turning their backs on the new-fangled New World roots and were nearly wiped out by recurring bouts of famine while their German neighbours grew chubby on nutritious, high-yield potato crops.
Today, it seems ironic the French were slow to embrace the potato considering the world's best-known potato dish is French fries.

French fries were a big hit with English and U.S. soldiers in Belgium during the First World War, but it is unlikely that it was the French who first fried potatoes. Legend has it that when there was no fish to fry, Spanish peasants sliced and deep-fried potatoes.
At least one Spanish historian contends that the first one to utter, "Do you want fries with that?" may have been the daughter of a Spanish knight born in 1515, none other than Teresa of Ávila, a.k.a. Teresa of Jesus, Roving Nun. This self-torturing Carmelite nun who lived (and died) by the motto: "Lord, either let me suffer or let me die" became the saint and protector of people who are ridiculed for their piety.

In the trenches
In the Barnes' lower garden in Topsail, it was Uncle Max who cut the seed potatoes. Like everything, there is a skill to cutting seed. I never understood the process, but it has to do with cutting between the "eyes" of the seed potatoes, and Max was considered the expert. The adults talked of sabagos, gems and blues.

The conversation recalled all kinds of potato plagues, such as canker, late blight, root maggot and rot that came to a field for no good reason. The cut seeds quickly filled a five-gallon bucket, and then were transferred to smaller buckets the younger ones could carry into the field. From the small buckets the seeds would be set in place, one at a time, equally spaced in the troughs of the newly ploughed furrows.

When the field was nearly seeded, my father's cousin, Harrison, would appear with a horse tackled into a plough. Fitted with blinkers so any sudden movement at the edges of her vision wouldn't spook her, her ears kept pivoting around, as she seemed to follow the men's conversation.

She was completely at ease with the playful pushing, shouting and arguing of the Barnes clan, and even ignored cigarette smoke that occasionally drifted past her nostrils.

When Harrison took his place at the plough handles, she lowered her head and pulled the plough through the earth, covering the pieces of potato seed. She knew just how far to go beyond the edge of the field so the plough, trailing some distance behind, would reach the end of the furrows.

If no command came encouraging her into the turn, she would wait there, half turned, the vapour of her exhaled breath made visible by her exertion, even on a hot day. Her strange, powerful animal smell blended with the smell of the damp, fecund soil.

I don't remember noticing the field any more until fall, when the potato stalks were dry and crispy, perhaps burned by an early frost. I didn't think about it until later, but someone must have weeded and watered and "trenched" the rows of potatoes and coaxed them along through the growing season until I discovered the spent stalks in the fall.

My dad or one of my uncles would stab a prong into the ground and wiggle the stalk free from the earth, revealing a mass of potatoes. The younger ones, like myself, would shake the potatoes free of the stalks and leave them to dry on the ground. Later, we picked them up, filling to the brim those same buckets that had carried the seeds to the furrows in the spring.

We dumped buckets of new potatoes into sacks the men would tie at the top and carry on their shoulders to a Chevy pickup, destined for the huge family cellar. The dry stalks were raked into piles. After dark, they were burned in smoky fires and we danced around the flames like fairies.

Geographic location: Spruce Hill Road, Andes Mountains, Europe France U.S. Belgium

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  • Geoff
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    Nice piece, Rick. I lived for a few years on Monument Road, and enjoyed many glorious walks past the old properties along Spruce Hill Road. My favorite was Metcalfe's Lane, a rutted, single-lane cowpath with a canopy of trees, that transported you to another time. I fear that many of those historic properties are being consumed, as you say, by encroaching development.

  • Geoff
    July 01, 2010 - 20:18

    Nice piece, Rick. I lived for a few years on Monument Road, and enjoyed many glorious walks past the old properties along Spruce Hill Road. My favorite was Metcalfe's Lane, a rutted, single-lane cowpath with a canopy of trees, that transported you to another time. I fear that many of those historic properties are being consumed, as you say, by encroaching development.