My German friend Antje is passionate about potatoes.
Potato dumplings (Kartoffelklobe), warm potato salad (Kartoffelsalat), potato soup (Kartoffelsuppe), freshly picked boiled potatoes — and especially potato gratin, which triggers memories with practically every bite.
But ask her about french fries and she will tell you she’s never had one. Not even a nibble. They’re just not something she grew up eating.
Potatoes are my comfort food. They have a yin-yang relationship with burgers and fried chicken, but for Antje, the potato has a deeper, almost spiritual connection. We explored her relationship with the Kartoffel over potato pancakes recently.
“I liken Germans and potatoes to Asians and rice. I prefer potatoes over pastas and breads,” Antje explains.
She was raised in a quiet resort town outside Hamburg, the country’s biggest port. Her father was an engineer and her mother a teacher.
“My parents grew up eating potatoes, so I did too. For as far back as I can remember, potatoes were a daily part of our lives in our meals and seasonally in our garden.”
Potatoes are a staple food crop in Germany and easy to grow. The fresher the better in Antje’s opinion.
“Fresh potatoes have a festive feel. Memories of my family sitting in the garden sharing a bowl of fresh boiled potatoes with a hint of salt are some of my happiest.”
But she’s not completely love-struck.
“I didn’t have to help cook when living at home but I did have to peel the potatoes, which I hated! They had to be peeled every day. When I really think about it, I probably only peeled potatoes once a month. But it feels like I was always peeling.”
And it’s not just the peeling part that Antje didn’t like.
“Most Germans don’t eat the skins, and it’s most likely because historically they were used for animal feed.”
When Antje moved to Berlin to attend university, she traded potatoes for pasta — no peeling required. But when she arrived in the U.S. 12 years ago, she found herself in the kitchen, with a peeler, cooking potatoes.
It’s boiled potatoes that bring Antje the comforts and feeling of home. They’re as nostalgic as they are filling.
“Add crème fraîche, pepper and salt, and that’s pure goodness for me in a bowl.”
Like Antje, my stepfather Klaus loves potatoes, but his bond was forged under very different circumstances, during a time when food was not about tradition, but survival.
The potato was his lifeline as World War II was coming to an end.
Klaus was born in Königsberg, the capital of the former German province of East Prussia. In 1945, Klaus, only 5, fled with his family and thousands more headed for western Germany.
“We were refugees. In the middle of the night we were transported by boat to Hamburg under heavy fire.”
The family was quickly relocated to a dairy farm just outside the city and provided a one-room converted barn where Klaus, his parents and six siblings would live for the next six years. To survive, they grew their own vegetables and worked as day laborers at neighboring farms.
Potatoes grew in abundance in the region and could be stored easily underground, covered with soil and hay during the harsh, snowy winters.
“Potatoes were our main food source. If my family worked the day on a farm, we were fed sandwiches by the farm owner. But if we didn’t, we ate potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
His mother would slice and fry, mash, and boil potatoes for use in soups. “Oh, we had lots of soup.”
Klaus and his siblings would harvest the crops by following a horse-drawn mechanism that uprooted the potatoes for collection by hand.
“When yields were low and no one was looking, I would stomp the potatoes back in the ground and retrieve them later when the farmer wasn’t around. When you’re hungry and have nothing much to eat, you do what you have to do.”
Potatoes were also a source of trouble for Klaus.
“My brother and I were given money to buy potatoes and we spent it one time on candy. We then tried to steal potatoes in the middle of the night and were caught by the farmer. He made us feed our potatoes to the pigs. My dad gave us the biggest whooping that night.”
That was reality for Klaus and his family until they immigrated to the U.S. when he was 11. He was drawn to the American dream of “food just coming to you” — an image transmitted by word of mouth in those days.
When he arrived in the States, his family was placed on a corn farm in the Midwest and worked there until they learned English and secured jobs to support themselves. Potatoes were no longer a means for survival, but now a choice.
Klaus has never grown tired of potatoes. Add a spoonful of rendered-down pork fat and he’s in his element.
It’s not about comfort and culture, but rather simplicity and taste.
“You can’t go wrong with a potato.”