Esta's Potatoes + Recipe for Potato-Cheese Scallop
By Ali Berlow
When Esta arrived late to The Ladies of the Grange Potluck & Planning Meeting – they were already buzzing about the grand opening of new post office. Beverly was complaining that her P.O. Box was too low. ‘How do they expect a little old lady like me to bend over every day to get my mail?’ And Mrs. Griggs harped that they put her box as far away from the counter as you could get. Esta hadn’t missed a thing.
She’d brought her usual dish, what The Ladies always ask her to bring to the potluck — a potato-cheese scallop. It was plain and good and everyone liked it. Esta cooked from the hip. She didn’t doll it up like some of those molded fruit salads that quiver when you walk by them. To her they looked like scantily clad beauty queens with too much lipstick. And the winter wasn’t the season to be serving vegetable ribbons in Jell-O – exposing all those parts to the elements — didn’t make any sense. Her potatoes were tucked-in, safe and warm, layered with milk, butter, onions and cheese.
During the potluck the dry forced-air heat had everyone blinking and Beverly apologized – the humidifier had broken down the other day. While pondering a stuffed black olive, Esta silently wished that it’d been Bev’s pastry bag that had broken down instead because ever since she got that gadget – she’d pack anything full of that god-forsaken cream cheese spread, speckled with chopped pimentos. No soggy canned olive, celery stick or deviled egg was safe from Bev’s pastry bag piping tips.
The griping about the post office turned into complaining about the ‘coldest winter we’d ever had since 1958’. At that point Esta decided that The Ladies would be much better off hibernating like bears — if this nonsense was all they could find to talk about during the winter. Her eyes glazed over but it was not because of the dry heat.
They eventually got through the agenda and planned the Spring Fling Ice Cream Social – who would sell the tickets, which husbands could scoop ice cream and who’d make the butterscotch and hot fudge sauces. After the last piece of prune cake was served, Esta felt like she could finally go home, having fulfilled her social obligations of the season.
Before going to bed that night, Esta checked-in on the potatoes sprouting in her closet, her secret for coping with cold. That was where she kept them – their blind eyes face up in the semi-darkness, in nests of onionskins and dried oak leaves. The sprouts grew by taking what they needed for nourishment and leaving the seed potatoes withered and shrunken. They were fleshy purplish protrusions as thick as her pinky and covered with a fine white hair with tiny little clenched fists of infant leaves ready to unfurl. She’d put them in her garden once the fear of frost had past. These long dark winter months made Esta distrust the sun – she thought it a ruse – a lie – a two-faced planet that spewed nothing but cold white gas and she kept her sprouts well away from it.
While the wind whipped through the trees outside her window, rattling the frozen sap, guilt seeped in about her impatience with The Ladies that night and criticizing Bev’s stuffed olives. It was winter after all, and everyone was bored and tiresome. She turned her thoughts instead to the life sprouting in her closet as she snuggled down deep under her featherbed. The thaw would come and the real sun, the hot one would be back. She knew when Spring was coming. The potatoes told her so.
Adapted from the Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook edited by Nell B. Nichols, 1959: “You won’t go wrong on this if there are men at the table.”
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
6 medium potatoes (like Yukon Golds) about 2 lbs., peeled & sliced
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup finely crushed potato chips
Pre-heat oven to 350° F.
Melt butter in skillet and sauté onions until lightly browned.
Grease a 2 quart baking dish. Put a layer of potatoes followed by a quarter of the onions. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of cheese, a 1/2 tablespoon of flour, some salt and pepper.
Repeat: potatoes – onions – cheese – flour – salt – pepper.
Pour milk over the top.
Sprinkle with potato chips
Cover and bake in oven for 45 minutes.
Remove cover and bake for another 15 minutes.