For The Love of Potatoes
“You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off.”
— George and Ira Gershwin
I never intended to start a food blog.
When my daughter was born with special needs, caring for her became a dizzying, exhausting, round the clock experience. I found myself slipping into depression, forgetting what it meant to be myself. Many caregivers can empathize– you become lost in a survivalist world which consumes your every waking moment. Sometimes days or even weeks pass without your leaving the house, so consumed are you with getting through another hour of the day. Confusing days bleed into equally confusing and exhausting nights. A special needs mom once told me that on a rare trip to the grocery store alone, she burst into tears in the aisles because she was unable to remember what she, personally, liked to eat, so caught up had she been for so long in caring for her child. It can be an exhausting, thankless, and depressing world at times.
It was on one of those grim days, for me, that the idea of a blog was born. I was trying to pull myself out of the mental funk that happens when one is forced to sequester in isolation for a long period of time (helllooooo covid isolation– welcome to everyday special needs life). It can be stifling to lose track of time, family events, and holidays, because you know that your reality is unchanging– you will be home, trying to survive, caring for your child and hoping to get through another day. I find that almost always these situations get better and more hopeful in time, but you have to work at it– and I was still learning how to see the hopeful parts, back in the beginning. I was feeling cheated– enslaved to this reality that I hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. I felt guilty for almost wishing my daughter had not come– had not changed my life into one of eternal servitude, doctors’ visits, and therapy appointments. She would sleep for a few minutes every few hours round the clock, before waking, screaming, in my arms. She woke instantly if we put her down, even to use the bathroom. I was so exhausted I felt like I was hallucinating.
It was on a very rare trip out by myself for an hour to the grocery store a few months after she was born that I paused. I was in the parking lot ready to leave, but I just couldn’t face the idea of going home to my prison again. I knew I had to go home, but if I’m being truthful, a small part of me wanted to just get in that car, start driving somewhere– anywhere– and never go home again. When you’re tired your brain imagines and even condones strange, unthinkable things, and in that moment, escape seemed like a tantalizing possibility.
I started thinking about the way life used to be– how I could go the store, take a shower, or even prepare a meal and enjoy those times. I thought about how I used to be able to try on a new outfit and feel cute in it, and how I hadn’t done that in quite some time. I thought about going shopping and eating out at a new restaurant I had never tried. I thought about traveling and vacation and not being awakened from exhaustion by blood curdling screams the moment my eyes closed. I wondered if my life would ever be that way again.
And right there in that parking lot I thought, I need a goal– something to give myself a reason to go on. I need something to work toward– something for myself, unrelated to caregiving, or doctors’ appointments, or therapy sessions. I need some tie to Emilie, herself– not Emilie the problem solver, mom, and caregiver. I considered that for a moment. If I could go anywhere in the world, where would I like to go? The choice was easy– I had always loved the James Herriot books— volumes about a country veterinarian deep in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales in England. I loved tea and everything British. My ancestors had originally been from the UK. I decided that if I could choose to go anywhere, it would be the British Isles.
Second, what did I like to do? That was a tricky one– it had to be something that I could do at home, without leaving my daughter. It had to be something I could do with materials and equipment I already owned, since I didn’t have extra money to spend on anything. I had always loved working in the kitchen– especially baking. My grandmother used to say that her grandma baked bread whenever she was angry, whether they needed bread or not– the methodical kneading of the dough got out her aggression and soothed her spirit. There is something so very visceral about baking– it connects with our senses on a deep level. The back and forth of our hands as we prepare something beautiful, anticipating the moment when we can enjoy it with those we love, is the very best kind of therapy. At many times of unrest in my life (moving, having babies, getting over extended illnesses), I knew that things were going to be all right when I started baking again.
I decided that baking was going to be the medium, and England was going to be the goal. I had no idea if I’d ever make it, and that didn’t matter. The “try” was what was going to get me through.
I knew absolutely nothing about food photography or blogging when I began. Predictably, those first entries and photos weren’t very good, but I found myself looking forward to something for the first time in months– feeling a little flicker of hope, again, inside. I told myself that even if I never achieved my ultimate goal of getting to England, I would learn something each day. I figured that when I was done I would have a new skillset, if nothing else. I had decided that I would try to complete this goal with things I already had, so I didn’t invest in photography courses or fancy equipment. I dug out my old camera from college and started reading all the free articles I could find on how to use it more effectively than the old point and shoot method, which for years had been my go-to. The manual buttons on the camera scared me; it was intimidating to change the setting from Auto to some mystical threshold of numbers that I was supposed to understand.
I read voraciously. I practiced religiously, and daily. I started to learn how to “make” photos, rather than just take them. I learned how to picture in my head the photo that I wanted, and then set up my light sources and camera to do what I wanted, instead of just getting lucky when I took the picture. Food was a natural medium to begin with because it was small and available on a daily basis for practicing. I started practicing with simple things like apples, and I realized that this is probably how “still life” portraits were born– the artist wanted to practice, and the apples were obligingly available. I still chuckle, wondering if “still life, 2021” would show a nice setup of a school or work ipad, a mask, and an article on social distancing. “Still life, with covid” could be a niche art setup of the future– who knows. You heard it first here. You’re welcome.
In those early days I was learning from everywhere about everything. Literally everything was new. I had to learn how to style food, how to set up light sources, how to photograph using the camera’s manual settings. Learning to use photoshop was also a hurdle that seemed ridiculously difficult. I kept practicing until this strange, complicated program felt a little less foreign, gradually becoming second nature to me. Interestingly, some people along the way were very helpful and kind, while others, looking back, were actually trying to stand in my way– to keep me from knowledge and learning because they didn’t want me to succeed or improve. Perhaps they saw me as a threat or didn’t want to share their knowledge? Who knows. I had one self proclaimed “long time blogger” tell me, “If I were you I wouldn’t waste time with it. You’ll never be big enough to make a difference. Just give up now.” When I told her that it wasn’t about becoming a big blog, but rather just a fun hobby and goal for myself, she gave deliberately vague, unhelpful advice, sometimes even steering me in the complete opposite direction to get me off track. I know now that she was trying to stop me before I got started. But I kept going in spite of people like her, and I learned in spite of them.
My photos started to improve, and I was excited to see that I was getting the hang of creating pictures, rather than just getting lucky with them. I started to feel that flicker of creative excitement that I used to feel, pre-caregiver. I would wake up excited to learn and create, for the first time in months. My blog started growing; it pleased (and surprised) me to see how well it was doing. People started writing to me on social media, telling me that they had tried something and were surprised that “it actually tasted like what you said– most bloggers just put up any recipe and never test it.” I was dubious– did people really do that? Of course the recipes were good– why would I put them up if they weren’t? I had a lot to learn about the blogging world, and even more to learn about power hungry, selfish people, in general.
I started to receive offers from companies– first small ones, and then ones that I recognized and used. They sent me free products and wanted to hire me to take photos for company promotions. I was flattered and amazed. I was approached by companies wanting to put their ads on my site. And they weren’t paying me in Monopoly money. I couldn’t believe it. I started saving in a teapot (it felt appropriate) each time the blog made money, for my England trip. To be truthful, I never thought I would get there– it was just a fun goal for myself, to keep me out of depression. But $5 became $50. Then $100. Then $900. I started thinking, “Wow– I might actually get to do this!” I hadn’t planned on achieving the goal, and I was unsure of what to do if I got there. I was enjoying the ride, so for now, I just continued to learn and allow it to grow at its own pace.
Eventually, as you know, I was lucky enough to go to England with a few friends. We had the trip of a lifetime, and I met long time cookbook author and blogger friend, Jacqui Bellefontaine, a lady whose hospitality and grace made that particular day the best part of my long anticipated vacation. That trip is a jewel in the memory bank of my life– a treasure which I can close my eyes, smile, and remember. I still have to pinch myself, sometimes, to think that I actually got to go– that I actually got to set foot in the places where my ancestors lived hundreds of years ago, and realize that, in some cases, I was probably the first of their descendants to return to their homeland after they left for America. They probably looked with longing on the lands that I was now seeing, wondering if they or their children would ever return. “I’m here,” I whispered. “It took me a few centuries, but I did come back. I came back to the land you loved– to those streets you played on– to that home you remembered all your life.”
After that glorious trip, I sat back and reevaluated the whole blog thing. I had done what I set out to do, despite never thinking that I could, or would. I had accomplished my goal– now what? Did I want to keep going with this blog thing, or did I want to close this chapter and start a new goal? I spent a long time thinking about that. My daughter was older now, and I felt much more capable of her care than I had in those dark, depressing early days. I had formed a support network of doctors, therapists, and friends. I had developed routines and hobbies that I enjoyed, such as ballroom dance, which enabled me to “be me” for a few hours a week and keep those isolated feelings at bay. I was happier than I had been in a long time. So what next?
I’m a fan of the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If something is working, then why mess with it? So for the time being I kept doing things the way I had been. I posted regularly, worked with sponsors, and did my ad program. It was nice having something I loved as my “job.” But then something troubling began to happen. The larger my blog grew, the more I started to see the darker world of blogging– of the exploitation of creativity for monetization. And I didn’t like what I saw.
I saw a world inhabited by smiling personas, most of whom were false faces putting on a show. I was invited to social media groups for larger food blogs, only to find out that they enjoyed sabotaging and putting others down, rather than trying to learn from and help each other. I met many people like the “friend” who tried to quietly smother me when I was first starting out– people who smiled as they stuck a knife in your back to keep themselves on top. I saw time and again how bloggers would post recipes for products, views, or sponsored posts, without ever trying the recipe or believing in a word of what they were saying. I started receiving more and more “troll comments,” which the mean girls’ blogging groups said was a mark of achievement– “when you get trolls, then you know you are important enough to harass! Good job!”
Another troubling reality was that people felt that if I had shared one small thing about my life, then they had the right to know everything about my life. I had random people from all over the place suddenly feeling that they had the right to know, judge, and comment upon every single thing I had ever done. Their entitlement was staggering– because they had read some of my work, they presumed to be deserving of knowing all of it. They demanded to see photos of my kids– wondering if “this special needs daughter even exists????” They wanted to know details about where I lived, my marriage, my past. They would ask questions about my sex life and make horribly inappropriate comments about everything from my body to my bra size. How all of these lewd comments spawned from a blog about tea and cookies, I will never know. But I suppose that anytime the alley cats smell fish, they will come from miles around to have a taste of it. And I did not at all like what it meant to be a full time food blogger.
I realized, more each day, that I wasn’t a food blogger. At my heart, I was a writer— quite a different thing. My heart stirred to create through words the beautiful memories I had experienced and the tastes that helped me to remember them. I could close my eyes and smell a fresh June strawberry, still warm from the sun, a second before I tasted its almost unbearable sweetness on my tongue. I could hear the wind chimes singing on the back porch as the screen door slammed. I could smell the fresh air whistling down from the mountain and making the porch swing bump against the house before the rain. I could feel the dirt under my fingernails from the first weeding of the garden. I could feel the grass on my bare feet and see lightning bugs dancing in the evening summer air. I could remember the twinkle of my grandpa’s eyes and see my grandmother’s hands dancing across a pie crust in a perfectly practiced waltz. I could hear Carl’s rusty old truck bumping its way up the gravel lane and taste the first black raspberry pie of the season, a scoop of thick, vanilla ice cream dripping luxuriously down its sides and turning the cream purple. All of these things meant something to me– yes, the food was a medium by which I remembered them, but the memories were the real thing I was aching to share. My fingers itched to put down on paper each detail captured by my senses so that I wouldn’t forget even a single thing. Those foods helped me to recall the memories. The food, itself, was more to me than a recipe or a blog entry. They were little pieces of beautiful, living memories, scattered all throughout my childhood. They were tickets to the past– tickets to go back, again, and live in those beautiful places one more time.
I started to realize that the rude, ignorant comments of others (“for three f^&*ing pages you b&*% about your grandma– just give me the ingredients I need to get from safeway, already!”) had really just helped me to make up my mind. The blog had been a goal, but it wasn’t the end goal. I started the blog because my heart wanted to write– because my fingers ached to capture those feelings, memories, and stories that were slipping away in the folds of time. Each of us has special memories that can be evoked by smell, by taste. We can walk into a department store and catch a whiff of a loved one’s perfume, and instantly he or she is there with us. We can taste a grandmother’s secret recipe, and once again we feel her loving arms around us. I have tasted foods made by other peoples’ grandmothers, and even though it is my first time trying it, I have known immediately that this was a dish of legacy– a dish of love. You can taste time and care in food. You can store snapshots of beauty in the vaults of your memories, unlocked by those smells and tastes.
Gradually I started taking a step back from social media. I have written about this before, but I am even more convinced of it now– heavy monetization of creativity, in the end, becomes the death of that creativity. People who pump out posts at a ferocious rate eventually pay the price through the dipping value of their content. Good things take time. There is nothing wrong with blogging for a living, but that’s exactly what it will be– a job. The magic sparkle of “I can’t wait to get up and try this” will be gone.
I judge no one for the choices she makes to support her family. I have met many genuine, amazing people who blog for a living. But blogging as a job truly is a different entity from blogging as a creative outlet. Just like any job, blogging for a living needs to happen whether you feel like it or not. And I realized that I couldn’t create that way, in the long term. It’s simply not the way I’m built.
Writing this blog, for me, has been a therapeutic, fun outlet. It has enabled me to learn so many new skills and meet many incredible people. I have gotten to try the family recipes of others– dishes made with love you can taste, that I would never have learned about otherwise. I have learned French pastry techniques and practiced food photography. I have stepped out of an airplane in Ireland and said, “Well hello there, Ireland. Your triple great granddaughter has come back for a visit. Did you miss me?” I have rounded a corner in Scotland and had my breath snatched from my lungs at the beauty of Loch Ness, in her deep, dark grandeur. I have seen Big Ben and stood on London Bridge. I have sat in the kitchen with Jacqui Bellefontaine, incredible chef, cookbook author, and unbelievably, someone I am blessed to be able to call a personal friend, where I enjoyed one of the most incredible meals I have ever had in my life, made just for me by her own hands. I am grateful beyond belief to the blog for all of that. How can you look at a journey like that and be anything but grateful?
I write for myself, now. If I don’t have anything to write, then I don’t write. Companies and random people who are strangely invested in my life, as if they own it, sometimes lash out angrily, wondering why I don’t post why I don’t stop living my life THIS INSTANT and give them that elusive shopping list for safeway. I just smile. I don’t have to care what they think. When people write unbelievably rude comments about content for which they have paid nothing and offered nothing, I smile and delete them. When some random company wants me to do a post for a product or company I don’t believe in, I politely decline. “No one has ever turned this down, FYI,” they say. “I believe someone has turned it down now,” I reply sweetly.
If I feel like posting a recipe, then I do. If I feel like writing, then I do. If I feel like taking a break from writing, then I do. If I feel like going out and working in my rose beds instead of struggling to produce some nonsense recipe for a company I’ve never heard of, then I do. It’s freeing, really.
I am free to savor the little steps of what made me love cooking in the first place, again. I can smell the onions and celery on my cutting board when it gets wet, from years of faithful service being my little chopping block. I can listen to the giggle of the pot boiling and smile with satisfaction as I pierce a perfectly cooked potato. I watch the steam swirling upward in dizzying, beautiful spirals that disappear as quickly as they came, to be replaced by others in a never-ending waltz. I crack a farm fresh egg and revel in its yolk– golden orange like a fiery rising sun. I sprinkle in some salt and maybe a little cream. I don’t use a recipe– my heart knows what to do without it. I pipe strange little shapes and laugh at how topsy turvey they look. I don’t bother making them magazine worthy– they are fine just as they are.
I take them out of the oven, golden brown and lovely. I take a bite, their shatteringly crisp exterior complemented by their creamy, soft interior. I stand there with my fingers burning, savoring one straight out of the oven. I stand in the sunshine, eating with my bare hands, not even bothering to take a photo. They are delicious. I take time to smell, to taste, to savor them, in that moment.
It’s a beautiful, beautiful life. And I’m going to enjoy living it.
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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