Potatoes Au Rotten
by Charles Cranney
I'm really not on the granola fringe. My wife, Andria, isn't either. She was raised in a family that, well, let me put it this way: Her parent's idea of a camp out is a night out at the Palm Springs Hilton.
So I'm not quite sure how we got involved in the idea of building a root cellar. Andria and I did notice the energy-wasting lifestyle common in our culture–heating the house and then taking the heated air and cooling it for the refrigerator; using a clothes dryer when it's 100 degrees outside; driving 1/4 mile to church or school. It just seemed that a root cellar was one small way of changing our lifestyle back to the way it should be.
And then, of course, there's the guilt we've always felt for not having a substantial supply of food. We did have some wheat but that was about it.
Anyway, one day Andria came back from the library, and among the 40 or so children's books she checks out every week was this one entitled "How to Build a Root Cellar." Thus began our year-long potato odyssey.
I searched through the book and found an extraordinary variety of root cellars. The principles for each type were the same: an earthen hole in the ground on the north side of a building (to avoid the direct sun rays); adequate ventilation, sufficient insulation where the entrance is; good drainage. Easy.
So, to select the hallowed spot, we called in the utility folks to mark all of the gas, power, and phone lines that crisscross our back yard in the most inconvenient places. (They call these people the "blue stake" folk, but they use paint instead of stakes–and it's not blue.)
Then we called our local handyman and asked him what it would cost to build one of these cellars. This guy is from Potatoland, Idaho, and he grew up with massive root cellars all over the place. He looked well fed, so we figured he should know. He even offered a couple of other suggestions not even found in the book. First, you can build a root cellar with a shed on the top of it. (He must have seen our lawn mower and other various garden instruments–not to mention the bikes–strewn all over our small carport and lawns.) He also suggested a redwood beam floor with insulation to ensure the proper temperature.
After serious consideration, our prime location seemed to be the southeast corner–right where our borer-invested apricot tree stood. Losing the tree wouldn't be a great loss–we thought we might even have a party when it was chopped down. I hated pruning and thinning it, but the worse part was mowing over the squishy ripe apricots that I failed to pick because of miscellaneous harvest-time conflicts: scouts, church work, my wife's pregnancies, etc. If we did manage to harvest it, the only kind of processed apricots our kids would eat was apricot leather, which takes a week to make. Then the kids would eat our entire supply the next week. The rest of the year we would wonder why we had an apricot tree.
What will it cost to build such a glorious root cellar? we ask. He hesitates. "Don't know for sure, but I'll get back with an estimate." We push him into an off-the-top-of-his-head price: somewhere between $700 and $1,000.
Then the wait started. One month, two, then three, four, and five. Finally, we realized that with fall approaching our great cellar plans were coming to naught.
This is where the freezer comes in.
You see, my wife Andria had read the now infamous root-cellar book, too. She found out that a buried freezer could fulfill all our needs, and, after all, it was a cheaper way to go.
I really didn't want a freezer. It would look tacky in the back yard, even if only the top was showing. But Andria and I hadn't discussed my feelings much. So one day I rode my bike home from work and, coming into the driveway all sweaty and tired, I noticed this monstrosity, this huge chest-type freezer sitting in an already crowded car port.
I didn't have to ask. I knew. This was going to be our root cellar, our insurance against starvation.
Walking into the kitchen, my wife mentioned that she'd also ordered 600 lbs. of potatoes (from Idaho, of course) that would be delivered in about a month (October).
Of course, by this time our "blue-staked" utility lines weren't marked any longer. So my wife called the one-800 number again and within a few days our lawn got repainted.
I couldn't get right to the freezer burial because life was busy (and, honestly, everything takes priority over digging a hole).
So life went by and one day Andria backed up our station wagon with a door open, crashing into the freezer and bending the car door so it wouldn't shut, wrinkling the outside paint in the process. Andria called our local auto body man that lived around the corner, and he bent it back enough so that it would shut–with a hard shove. (Before this incident, we actually looked like a respectable-car family, something we longed for through two or three rust-bucket car eras. Now our image had once again returned.)
Finally the day arrived for the dig, and I borrowed our backyard neighbor's 100-year-old, 100-pound crow bar. (I think he inherited it from someone like his great-great-grandmother.)
For those not familiar with the Orem, Utah, terrain, the borrowed crow bar deserves some explanation. Orem is on a plateau in Utah Valley, formed as an alluvial plane of the ancient Provo River that fed the now-defunct Lake Bonneville. In more common terms, about two inches below the top soil are rocks, lots of them–big ones, small ones. So anyone attempting to dig in Orem needs special tools, preferably a backhoe. But, not keeping a backhoe in my carport, I was left to my shovel and my neighbor's crow bar.
I carefully marked and measured the area for digging, barely missing where I think the mark was for the power line. (The "blue stake" painted lines had disappeared again, and I was too embarrassed to call them a third time.)
With all the ceremony of mowing a lawn, I began digging. It's an interesting phenomenon to dig rocks out of the ground. First you see the top of the rock and you guess that it's the size of a small pebble. Upon further exploration, you realize that you've underestimated its size. After digging around it for an hour or two, you notice that the whole ground now moves as you try to get under it with a crow bar. Finally, after a few days of starting and stopping, you ceremoniously lift the 100-pound rock out–only to find another bigger beneath it. Of course the largest rocks are on the edge of the hole you're digging. So you have to enlarge the hole even more than you thought, coming perilously close to the electric line that's buried nearby.
After a week of diligent evening and Saturday work, I finally got down to about three feet–half way there. Life was getting busy and I noticed that our potatoes hadn't been delivered. My motivation for digging the hole began to wane. And the freezer stayed in the carport.
November came and went, and I was sure we'd never see the potatoes. In December we went to all our Christmas parties and did our shopping, putting the root cellar out of our minds as much as possible (the freezer in the carport serving as a reminder of our lost dream). The winter came and the ground became frozen. We were just settling down for the last three days before Christmas when there came a knock at the door.
The potatoes had arrived. Six-hundred pounds of them.
Well, it was too cold to store them outside, our root-cellar not being complete, so Andria and I decided to line our entrance hall with them until I could finish my digging, which created a one-way hall.
"You'll want to get them in a cooler environment soon," said our friendly potato deliverer.
I decided I'd better take the next couple of days off from work to finish my dig through the frozen tundra. I worked like a mad man, and when I'd collapse from exhaustion my wife would pound at an obstinate rock until I got my strength back. Not having much daylight in midwinter, I hooked up my Coleman lantern on the bare-branched apricot tree and worked well into the night, my frosted breath ascending past the bare apricot branches "without a death," as Lord Tennyson would say. Slowly, ever so slowly, the hole got deeper. Finally, on Christmas eve at five p.m., we were ready to put the freezer in.
Not wanting to bother any neighbors on Christmas eve (and being slightly embarrassed about what we were doing), Andria and I decided that, with the aid of my 11-year-old son, Carl, we could slide it in. With a heave and a ho we moved the freezer to the hole and tried to put it in. But there was one rock (on the edge of the hole, of course) that needed to be removed. It was one of the biggest I'd seen and took me two hours of exhaustive, rhythmic pounding to remove it. Then I called Andria and Carl back. We found the hole was just big enough to fit the freezer in if the freezer were lowered in perfectly level, which was impossible with our fatigued crew. Our backdoor neighbor (the one with the crowbar) saw the lantern in the apricot tree and walked over to see what we were doing on Christmas eve.
Though I could see the twinkle of laughter in his eye, he was restrained and didn't mock our efforts out loud. He did offer to bring his two football player sons over to help, and, after another hour of hoisting, jerry-rigging, and grunting, the freezer was in place–never to be moved again.
We thanked them and went in to have our once-hot-but-now-cold traditional shepherds' dinner with our children. After getting the children to bed and asleep (which takes an extra three hours on Christmas Eve), Andria and I, with what little energy we had left, put out Santa's presents and collapsed into a deep sleep, well knowing our kids would get up at five a.m.
Being in a recuperative mode, I didn't put the potatoes in until two days later–on our wedding anniversary.
Our little, cheap root cellar was our pride and joy that winter, though we only used about 150 pounds of potatoes by April. It's too bad that Armageddon or at least some sort of national catastrophe didn't happen then. We were ready.
In April we didn't have the cool showers to bring in the May flowers. It was unusually warm, and as the sun's position started to shift northward past our south fence, the root cellar directly absorbed its rays–with 450 pounds of potatoes still contained in it. At first we noticed the potatoes starting to sprout, and we would snap the sprouts off before we ate them, kind of like taking apart many Mr. Potatoheads. But it wasn't long before a thousand sprouts were intertwined together and we had to write the potatoes off. I didn't give much thought about removing them at the time. It seemed a messy job at best. Maybe my wife will do it, I thought, if I just ignored them.
Finally, in June, my wife insisted "we" had better do something about the potatoes. By this time I could tell "I" had a problem–a big one.
Have you ever smelled rotten, I mean a really rotten, potatoes?–ones so rotten that they have the consistency and look of vanilla custard covered by a thin skin? How about 450 pounds of them in a summer-sun heated freezer?
Another week went by as Andria and I discussed the most appropriate way to rid ourselves of this toxic sludge. Finally, relying on our garden skills, we decided that the potatoes would make a great compost heap for our spinach garden, which had just come to a close for the year. This garden was next to the south side of our house.
So, courageously I got out our big scoop shovel, dressed in the oldest clothes I could find and began the removal. Trying to reduce my odoriferous discomfort, I soon devised a unique rotten potato removal technique, which I will describe. First, you go to the north side of the yard, where the air is still fresh, and then you hyperventilate. Holding your breath, you dash to the infamous cellar, take out a big scoop, and run it over to the garden. Your lung capacity isn't sufficient for the complete cycle and so you take several short gasps of the rank air. It's like playing hot potato with yourself–you always lose.
After a couple of hours of sweat and stink, I finished scooping out the guck and ran a water hose over to the cellar to spray it out. (I had put drainage holes in the bottom, following our root-cellar book to the tee.)
Now all that remained left to do was mix the potatoes with the dirt in the garden, creating something that looked like a chocolate mousse (but being as far away from it as Carob is to chocolate). As I started mixing, I noticed a multitude of flies had descended on the pile. There we're also sundry other insects, including some with stingers. Using the hold-your-breath technique as much as I could, I mixed the dirt and potatoes–using my fear/flight adrenalin reaction when a stinging insect passed too closely.
Sweaty and hot in the 95-degree weather, I had done my duty, and it was time for a glorious shower. Stripping down outside as much as possible, I headed for the shower and stayed in it until all the hot water was gone. I then walked up the stairs to my room and noticed that horrible smell coming from our swamp cooler. Our cooler is on the roof above the garden, and the stench had wafted around our cooling system.
So we had to turn it off and suffer through the next few days. Andria and I avoided contact as much as possible with the neighbors, afraid they might have discovered our secret garden. But all we heard was one neighbor who commented that there were a lot more flies around this year. We nodded in agreement and said that it was probably due to the unusually warm April. (Well, it was, in an indirect sort of way.) I turned the soil over daily to try to quench the stench.
Finally, our house got back to normal (or at least back to usual). In July we got rid of the rocks I'd dug up and then I reseeded the lawn next to the root cellar. I also threw away the shoes I'd used. The smell just wouldn't leave them.
When our busy September came (and the root cellar was starting to be shaded by the southern fence again), Andria made an announcement.
She had ordered 500 pounds of potatoes.