Monday, July 27, 2009

Vincent, Potatoes, and Your Harvest Baskets

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885. Oil on canvas 82 x 114 cm. Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

       Today, as I reached into the earth to dig up potatoes, I thought of Vincent van Gogh, the fact that he died this very day, long ago (July 27, 1890), and of his first major painting, The Potato Eaters...
     "He is a filthy beast," so thought Vincent van Gogh about his family's estimation of him. What others would diagnose as mental illness, Vincent thought of as illumination - a new vision of what painting could be: a revelation of heaven here on earth. He thought himself a prophet-painter and a thinker. The thinker side of him poured thoughts out in a deluge of words in the letters he wrote to his younger brother, Theo. The prophet-painter side began as an epiphany. He decided he would be an artist and it would take him ten years to do it. After ten years, quite eerily, Vincent killed himself. He knew for certain that painting was in the very marrow of his bones. He wanted his fellow humans to know that this man feels for the earth keenly. If he were to demonstrate to the common poor that if heaven were in simple things - the smell of the soil, the petal of a flower, a frugal meal - he had better be one with them, not above them.
            And then it happened. The Potato Eaters is his first undeniable masterpiece. It is a curriculum vitae of everything he'd thought and felt up to this point, everything that would make him a revolutionary artist is already here. The dark thick color was chosen not just for pictorial effect but you might say philosophically.  For a starter, the brown is - to be blunt - a manure brown. This color, Vincent explained, was of dusty spuds before they’ve been rinsed. Lost in total identification, Van Gogh paints like a clod. The heavy loaded brush doing its own manual labor. The picture appears dug and tilled rather than painted. There’s total union between painter and farmer family. It's all in the hands.
           "I tried to bring about the idea that these people eating potatoes by the light of their lamp have dug the earth with the self-same hands that they are putting into their dish. Manual labor, a meal honestly earned. Anyone who wants to paint peasants looking mamby pamby can suit himself." So wrote Vincent to his brother, Theo.
           It's almost as if he’s giving a smirk at the polite siennas and decorous burnt umbers of the drawing room paintings he’d had to sell to the rich and famous with a clinched jaw as a young man London. It’s this humble, hard-working family before you who dine in a state of grace. Their potato supper is a holy communion of the toiling class. His art, like this painting, would reclaim what had once belonged to religion: consolation for our mortality through the relish of the gift of life.
And now I understand
how you suffered for your sanity
how you tried to set them free
perhaps they'll listen now.
For they could not love you
but still your love was true and when no hope was left in sight on that starry starry night. You took your life as lovers often do;
But I could have told you
this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you...


For your baskets tomorrow:
Freshly-dug Red Potatoes (of course)
A Sprig of Rosemary (great for baking with your potatoes!)
Salad Cucumbers
Several Ears of Delicious Sweet Corn
A Bunch of Swiss Chard
A Bag of Heirloom Lettuce
Baby Carrots

From Pearl Whitley's Lavender Lane Cookbook
Roasted Vegetables
The great thing about this recipe is that you can use any  combination of vegetables  that you like;  tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, parsnips, summer or winter squash, sweet potatoes, turnips,  onions, rutabagas, zucchini, squash, etc. This recipe serves 4-6 people.
Potatoes,  peeled or not and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 Carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 medium Butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 Parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
Olive oil
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425o F. Place vegetables in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss the vegetables well with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 25-30 minutes.

Roasted Rosemary and Red Potatoes 

red skinned new potatoes
3/4 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp. lemon zest, grated
2 tsp. rosemary
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Quarter potatoes and arrange in baking dish in single layer. Salt and pepper potatoes. Combine butter, lemon juice and lemon zest in a saucepan and heat until butter is melted. Pour mixture over potatoes. Sprinkle rosemary over potatoes. Bake until lightly browned for 30 to 45 minutes.


  1. I made this last week with the garlic, peppers, and greens from my basket and tomatoes from my own garden. I just might have to make it again this week! Hope you like it too,


    Winter Greens & Potatoes
    From the “Eating Well” cookbook

    1 lb. mixed greens, such as mustard, collards, kale, or escarole*
    2 medium-sized potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, quartered, and sliced thinly
    1 Tablespoon olive oil
    1-2 small dried chili peppers, seeds removed, torn into pieces OR ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes**
    2 medium-sized fresh tomatoes, chopped OR a 16 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, drained.
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

    Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Prepare greens: remove any yellowed or wilted leaves, as well as any tough or fibrous stems, chop leaves, rinse well, and set aside. Cook sliced potatoes in the boiling water until tender, about 5-7 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Add greens to the potato water and boil until tender – 5-7 minutes for the sturdier greens, 2-3 minutes for the more delicate ones. Drain.

    Add oil to a wide non-stick skillet and put over medium heat. Add chilis or red pepper flakes (or chopped peppers). Garlic may be added to the pan now, but must be watched as it tends to burn quickly. When oil is hot, add potatoes, stir to coat well with oil, and cook for 1 minute or so. Add greens and tomatoes (and garlic, if not already added), and cook for another 5 minutes, breaking up potatoes with a wooden spoon. Add salt and fresh black pepper to taste.

    *Beet greens, turnip tops, broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, spinach, or chard can also be used, but the cooking time needed will be shorter.

    **Or 1-2 fresh hot peppers, chopped, with or without seeds depending on taste (seeds are where the heat is – keep them in if you like the heat, remove them if you prefer more flavor with less burn.)

  2. Sounds good, Marie. Thank you for posting this!