In Norway, my family lived to the rhythm of the potato harvest. I still remember everything it taught me.
As a child, my job was to put the potatoes into operation after school. My parents got home not long after me and prepared the rest of the meal, but the base was almost always potatoes, which took the longest to cook. In the morning, my mother put the unpeeled potatoes—usually pink-skinned, tough, and floury potatoes—in salted water and covered the aluminum pot with a lid. All I had to do was set the stove knob to medium.
When they were done, the potato pot was placed on the table next to an empty bowl for their bowls. I reached in and skewered a potato with my fork and held it while I peeled it with my table knife. Then I would add the rest of dinner to the potatoes on my plate—perhaps fish patties in creamy white gravy or elk meat patties in rich brown gravy—and begin eating.
My family comes from the potato growing area, specifically from Nordstuggu Re, one of the six Re farms in the Norwegian region of Trøndelag. Ree is our name too – it’s my middle name – spelled a little differently for reasons lost in history, but it forever binds us to this place and its way of doing things.
I grew up in the neighboring village of my grandparents’ farm, which is also where our potatoes came from. My grandparents lived according to a rhythm set by nature and always had to be home on time to feed the cattle. Occasionally they went somewhere to visit their family, but mostly I could count on them being home, in the white house with the currant garden or in the red barn beside fields of barley, grass and potatoes. The farmhouse had a whole basement full of canned goods – jars of pickled beets, cabbage hanging from nails, frozen meat and endless jam. Most importantly, there was a cool, dark potato cellar with piles of potatoes from last fall on cement floors.
If you take care of your potatoes, they will feed you for a whole year. However, great care is taken to ensure that this happens. Grandpa Per Ree paid constant attention to every step, starting with planting: the tender Sharpe’s Express potatoes were his favorite potatoes, but they didn’t last long, so he also planted pink-skinned burnets, which are more hardy in the field and ideal for enduring the winter. The field required attention in the summer and the harvest was a big operation, but the most tedious work of all took place in the potato cellar in the winter and spring, where grandpa made sure nothing froze and nothing germinated, which happens when too much light penetrates a. Sprouted potatoes become wrinkled and eat an excessively sprouted potato can even make you sick. When the potatoes inevitably began to sprout, Grandpa would examine each one and pluck them clean. Thanks to his vigilance, there were always enough potatoes for the next harvest.
Grandpa has been gone for almost seven years now and I still haven’t gotten used to it. Losing someone who has always been with you is something incomprehensible. How ridiculous is it that you should just accept that there is now one less face among the ones you always knew?
On my grandparents’ farm, boiled potatoes were the main ingredient and served with almost every dinner. Grandma Oddlaug Ree also turned the bounty into potato cakes, “potetlemse” (similar to what Norwegian Americans call “potetlemse”).laugh’) and crispy flatbread made from potato flour. There was always enough food on the farm – and it was good food too – but it wasn’t unlimited. “My mother was a good cook, but it was a lot of work feeding seven people every day,” says my mother, Magni Ree. “We would usually have soup or dessert to lengthen the main course, and our grandma would always urge us to ‘eat bread,'” she says, referring to flatbread.
Growing up, dinner was always a stack of flatbreads. My mother didn’t tell me to fill up, but part of the food mentality from her childhood remained: she scolded me for calling me “mauling,” which in Norwegian means eat something precious like cheese or sausage plain than as part of a meal. I instinctively understood that it was greedy and wasteful.
The Nordstuggu Re potato field was around 5,000 square meters in size, just a little smaller than a soccer field. The potatoes were planted in May, after the last frost, using seed potatoes grandpa saved from last year.
“When the potato plants start to grow, it’s called ‘hypping,'” says my mother, using a term I’ve never heard before. This involves covering the bottom of the plant with soil to prevent the growing potatoes from being exposed to air, causing them to turn green and inedible. In English this is called “earthing up” – my English is almost my first language now, but every once in a while I come across a subject I don’t have the vocabulary for. I’ve spent my whole adult life in England, but there are things I’ve only done in Norway so far. Sounds and smells can take you back in time, as can language from the past. I’m used to having two words for everything, but when that fails it’s like only one of my two worlds exists. I love potatoes, but I rarely make them in England – potatoes are Norway to me.
In summer, the potato plants bloom, filling the field with white or purple flowers. The big harvest takes place in September, during what previous generations called the potato break, when all the children left their classrooms to pick potatoes around the village. Even after the potato plant has been chopped up (with a contraption resembling an inverted bathtub) and the soil has been turned over with the tractor, it’s hard work — but back in the day, when it was necessary, it was even harder to dig up the potatoes with the hand out. The potatoes were collected in lattice buckets, which allowed the dirt to fall off, and stored in wooden crates, which were transported back to the farm by tractor. From there they were tipped over a specially designed ramp through an open window into the potato cellar.
On harvest day, grandma was responsible for the catering. “The workers had breakfast before they started, and then in the morning there was potato cake with syrup or cheese, which was served in the field to pass the time.” At lunchtime there was usually stew, then coffee and sheet cake in the afternoon,” she recalls himself exactly. No one left until the field was empty. Norwegian schools no longer have potato holidays as they have evolved into autumn holidays – although they were paid for, Grandma doesn’t think today’s kids would put up with them.
The heyday of Nordstuggu Re potatoes is in the past, but there has been a small revival in recent years. My Uncle Arnt Ree and his family, who now run the farm, have a few rows of potatoes again. They use the same old equipment as it works flawlessly – it’s all about continuing the proud tradition of self-sufficiency while bringing a new generation of Ree children into the potato field.
“If you remember everything I said today, then you know a lot,” Grandma says as I leave her house after we reminisce about the farm in the afternoon, but she needn’t worry. I remember the mountain of potatoes in the cellar, the currant liqueur in clear bottles, Grandpa sleeping on the divan sofa, Grandma in her Crimplene dress and curlers. I still remember grandpa taking me to see the cranes in the field and letting me drive the tractor, although I didn’t know how – it was so noisy but the birds flew away when you walked closer came. I remember Grandma teaching me to embroider, breaking the delicate thread in half so it could reach further. Even today, I would never eat a piece of sausage by itself and would always grab a boiled potato to stretch it out.