A Starch Diet

Tubers are intrinsic to the Polish soul

STALOWA WOLA, POLAND—Polish cuisine is a constipating conglomeration of cured meats, potatoes, cream sauces, fried potatoes, blueberries, and potato chips.

I first encountered the Polish potato about two hours north of Warsaw, at a school for children with special needs. I was stationed in a small town in order to learn a little Polish. My potatoes were stationed next to my inevitably fried pork product and mound of shredded cabbage—ostensibly, in order to ease digestion.

I remember my first Polish potatoes: simply boiled and garnished with dill. Little did I know how many possibilities lie hidden in those tubers: there are many ways to kill a cat, but even more ways to cook a potato. Polish elementary schools know their potatoes. So do Polish grandmothers, and the country’s many greasy spoons, or “milk bars.” Incidentally, these aren’t very milky. Rather starchy, in fact.

Then again, these tubers are a national obsession, an indelible part of the Polish psyche. A particularly potato-proud Pole might serve vegetable soup with potatoes, potatoes slivered and sautéed, and a salad of creamed cauliflower and potato. All at a single Sunday dinner.

The potato gained its place in the Polish pantry during “The Deluge,” a series of wars in the 17th century that left Poland in ruins. Sweden occupied most of the country, and local agriculture foundered. Potatoes began to replace cereals during a grain production crisis.

As far as I can tell, grain production in Poland is now doing fine. But that doesn’t hurt our friend, Polish Potato. If my experience reflects the national trend, those taters are doing just fine. Bread and potatoes, beer and potato vodka—why settle for just one starch when you can have two?

Sure, Poland has yet to meet Dr. Atkins, though I’m sure that day will eventually come. But perhaps a bit of dietary recklessness isn’t such a terrible thing. While Americans count calories, Poles eat for pleasure, often five times a day. As far as I know, only Poles would ever say “first breakfast” and “second breakfast.”

Of course we’re supposed to eat a balanced diet, watch our saturated fat intake, our sugar intake, and plenty of other intakes I don’t know enough about to name. Poles, on the other hand, see balance in terms of possibilities, not limits. This a country where “no thanks” really means “I’ll take two.” Trying the black forest cake but not the lemon torte—now where’s the balance in that?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that bread smeared with spiced lard can be wholesome. And so can potatoes. Poles enjoy those simple carbs in hearty servings and still live long, happy lives. Markets hum with the gossip of great-grandparents out to buy the day’s bread and potatoes. Surprisingly, the average life expectancy is some 74 years. It must be the tubercles.

And if not the potatoes, then certainly the pro-potato attitude. You see, Poles don’t worry about silly things like carbohydrates, at least not in front of Americans. The economy is sputtering, the architecture is abysmal—think concrete shoeboxes—and most English classes are taught entirely in Polish.

In times like these, we all need our potatoes. Americans, on the other hand, epitomize the anti-potato attitude. If not carbohydrates, we worry about carcinogenic vegetables, radioactive cell phones, and toxic seafood. Incidentally, small talk on Polish trains never gets near PCBs or farmed Alaskan salmon. Americans wonder if what’s on their plate will do them in. Poles wonder if you’d like some more potatoes.

So, it seems I’m in for a potatoey summer, but should you decide to visit, you won’t find me complaining. Here, the tea may be Lipton and the coffee instant, but the potatoes are nothing short of divine.

Thomas B. Dolinger ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is teaching English in Stalowa Wola and, in his spare time, pondering potatoes.