Our potatoes are growing in the field now—white fingerlings, heirloom purples and waxy pinks. The shiny leaves have broken the ground and are forming rows along with other spring crops like arugula, lettuce and kale.
Each spring, we join a few other farms to order organic “seed” potatoes, which are potatoes intended for planting. We store them in crates in the playroom to keep them free of frost until we are ready to plant them.
When the potatoes arrived at our house and my husband set them out in a dozen black crates across our playroom, I knew our shmita (sabbatical) year was really over. Children maneuvered around the crates, and the room smelled like freshly turned earth.
After a yearlong break from farming and an unusually cold spring, the farm is finally getting back in gear. Potato planting is one of the big early plantings and tends to bring out the neighbors. This year a friend who just celebrated his 85th birthday, and has been farming since he was 10 years old, came out to help us fix a tractor and chat.
He wanted to check all the attachments on our tractor and take a close look at the soil and some transplants we were putting in. You can imagine my nine-year-old son’s face when he shared that he started driving a tractor around age 10 or 11.
We planted potatoes using an attachment on the tractor that formed shallow furrows. We hand-tossed the potato seed chunks into the row and used the tractor to cover the rows. The children helped bury the potatoes that the tractor left exposed.
This year, I am trying to establish the habit of counting the Omer and looking forward to building a fire on Lag b’Omer, on May 26th. Lag b’Omer is celebrated with bonfires, family picnics and children playing with bows and arrows.
Potatoes are considered a traditional Lag b’Omer food, especially in Israel, along with grilled meats and salads. That doesn’t seem so surprising considering that potatoes find their way into most Jewish holiday meals. I remember learning the Yiddish song “Bulbes,” about eating potatoes every night of the week, at a National Yiddish Book Center program when I was in college.
There doesn’t seem to be a specific explanation for why potatoes are traditional for Lag b’Omer besides that they are cheap and easily cooked in foil as part of a campfire. I am guessing that is how s’mores also became traditional.
One possible explanation is that since potatoes grow hidden in the ground and the above-ground leaves are poisonous, they can be a metaphor for digging deeper for meaning and for the reward of revealing what may be hidden. Lag b’Omer is a celebration of the secrets of Jewish mysticism being revealed and shared, and in Israel, during the holiday, hundreds of thousands of people make the pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a Jewish mystic who spent many years in hiding in a dark cave with his son before he emerged and shared the secret teachings that are seen as the start of Jewish mysticism. I think that other foods with hidden surprises, like knishes or dumplings, would fit well, too.
Top photo: Tanya’s husband, Scott Hertzberg, on their potato planter.