Tenth Helpings is a humor column from our culture critic, Ella Quittner, illustrated by Olivia de Recat.
I know a place where you can go to be alone. It’s got a roof over it, with a door that locks. There’s a bed and a sink and a kettle for coffee, and from most angles, the land on which it sits is stunningly green, and stunningly flat. The packaged snacks are free and abundant, and there is a rabbit who hops around the property as if he hadn’t yet decided what he’d get up to that day. There is a cow named Dolly who will wander by, shooting you reproachful glances until you acquiesce and stick your hand beneath the dispenser that overflows with edible pellets. Her gratitude will make you blush. It is the place where I began and ended one of the weirdest nights of my life, and it is a six-ton potato, thirty minutes southeast of Boise, Idaho.
Like many people, I spent much of the pandemic fantasizing about the after. Unlike those other people, my fantasies included a metal tube measuring roughly twelve by twenty-eight feet, designed to be a perfect scale replica of an Idaho potato.
The genesis of the giant potato was something like this: About a decade ago, the Idaho Potato Commission had a six-ton scale replica of their mascot created from fiberglass, a sort of shock-jock advertisement fabricated to tour the country on the back of a flatbed. After seven years on the road, the Commission handed the keys to a woman named Kristie Wolfe.
Wolfe supervised as the enormous potato was deposited onto a 400-acre property at the intersection of U.S. Highway 26 and an access road. She completed an overhaul of its interior, outfitting it with millennial pink club chairs, a queen bed with a white linen comforter, and a chandelier designed to look like a handful of candles suspended in moose antlers.
It opened for business just in time for Earth Day, 2019, eleven months before the world shut down.
I have wanted to just briefly escape my own life for as long as I can remember. My fiancé has accused me more than once of chronic mental wandering, or as he calls it, “Not listening to the story about the time he got hit on at La Colombe.” The desire to put all of my stock in some fantasy of the future—to dip out of a dinner without saying bye, to flee the country and spend days floating in an anonymous body of water while picking at a decent sandwich—has been my most consistent quality. One of my earliest memories is kneeing my dad in the balls at another toddler’s Gymboree party, so he would take me to the car and reprimand me. I couldn’t think of a quicker way out.
When the pandemic descended, I began to feel like fuzzy wall insulation was slowly, steadily filling my apartment until I couldn’t see the window. Death, sadness, and fear had never been so tangible. Some people put their anxiety and dread to good use on the frontlines. I spent hours each week maneuvering the little yellow Google Maps guy onto side streets in Tokyo, in hot pursuit of deafening, smoky Pachinko parlors.
It was a different sort of depression than the one I was accustomed to. I was a foot about to hit the floor in a stutter-step I would have preferred to skip—I was faltering, guilty over a grief I wasn’t sure I could claim, pretty turned around. I wanted a soft, permanent landing. And if I couldn’t have that, then I wanted to pretend I was in a gambling hall, nibbling at 7-Eleven fried chicken I’d snuck in, in my purse. I kept my passport on the kitchen table, as though at any moment I might be summoned overseas.
I learned of the giant potato in the most cursory of ways: through a stranger on the internet. I looked forward to his weekly dispatches of bizarre news stories, like “Salmon Going Nuts at a Fish Farm Possibly High on Cocaine, Officials Say,” or simply, “German Pentathlon Coach Disqualified After Punching Horse.”
I can’t recall exactly when it was that he posted, “Spend the Night in the Most Famous Potato,”—only that it was sometime in the in-between. After things got really scary, before there was much hope. After sourdough, before Olivia Rodrigo. Sometime around when I discovered Baby Foot and became obsessed with shaving off thin layers of myself to pass the days.
But I do recall the weeks after: the time I spent obsessing about the World’s Largest Potato. Reading about it online. Getting drunk and murmuring the Airbnb reviews aloud from a sort of mechanical massage chair I’d stumbled upon, in my in-laws’ basement: “10/10 time at the spud.” “The potato is like a big cocoon—it’s dark and quiet.” Considering Angella d’Avignon’s meditation about whether or not the giant potato can be considered liminal. (It cannot, she surmised.)
A man called Frank Muir, President of the Idaho Potato Commission, had apparently once said of the World’s Largest Potato: “If you really just wanted to know what it’s like to be inside a potato, as opposed to having a potato inside you, here’s a great opportunity to experience it.”
That sounded exactly like me.
The potato became a mythical escape, domestic and contained, safe, attainable. Ridiculous, yet respectable. Away from it all. Something an unsuspecting editor might green-light as an expense.
I’d been turning over the idea of escapism, trying to fit it into a neat space in my mind. Eventually I talked to David Gonzalez, a psychotherapist based in Northern California, who had made the mistake of once meeting me through my sister.
When I got him on the phone one Saturday morning, Gonzalez told me that escapism is more of an abstraction, a tendency that could be related to diagnosable conditions, but not something with its own pathology.
“It’s pretty much just diversion from unpleasant, boring aspects of everyday life,” he said. “It can involve daydreaming, using your imagination, or engaging in things—we all have escapist tendencies to cope, but there are different degrees of extremity.”
At the most extreme end of the spectrum, someone experiencing active, ongoing trauma might dissociate as an escapist means to survive.
On the other end of the spectrum, a neurotic with a life of great privilege and health might turn to the Google Maps guy when she gets bored, or sad, or hungry.
In the summer of 2021, I finally visited the potato. The day did not get off to a great start.
“What happened to your glasses?” asked a kind man behind the Hertz counter of the Boise airport, when I stumbled from the plane, my left arm numb from bearing the weight of a leaden-headed unaccompanied minor named Reese. He had sleep-kicked me with his tiny sneakers for the duration of our flight.
“Reese had a nightmare,” I told the kind man. My glasses had been in my shirt pocket, which Reese had immediately identified as the ideal plane pillow. Now, they sported a busted lens and cracked frame.
The Hertz man and I chatted about Boise for a few minutes. He’d lived there his whole life.
“Do you like potatoes?” I asked.
“To each his own,” he said cryptically, and handed me my keys.
I opted to take the scenic route to the World’s Largest Potato. The street bore a savage misnomer, Pleasant Valley Road, and I swore as my rental car shuffled over miles of what seemed to be a potholed, gravel coated, dust-spewing hiking trail.
A few miles in, I realized I hadn’t heard a peep from the potato people. Didn’t Airbnb usually send like fifteen reminder emails? Had I flown to Boise on the wrong weekend? I pulled over next to an Idaho State Correctional Center and searched for any evidence of my booking. My relief upon finding a confirmation email soured when I got to the part of the check-in guide that described a train that would pass by my potato either zero or ten thousand times over the course of my stay. “There’s no schedule, and they have to blow their horn when passing the intersection!” explained the cheery guide.
Half an hour later, I pulled up to the property. My car was coated in a thick layer of dust, and my glutes felt like I’d ridden there bareback over a football field of shattered glass. I stepped out of the car, and blinked up at the large grey and brown lump, perched by the side of the road: my giant potato.
I simply couldn’t believe how much the fake giant potato looked like a real giant potato, with textbook proportions, carefully puckered “skin,” and contrast-painting to mirror a dry, scrubby tuber. She was beautiful. The potato sat on a lot with nothing but a water tower punctuating the green that stretched beyond it. Some might have said that the landscape reminded them of In Cold Blood. I chose to see it as pastoral, serene.
As I let myself in the two-foot chicken wire gate that surrounded the potato and walked up the path to its front door, a fluffy bunny rabbit hopped by as if to welcome me.
Inside, the giant potato looked like a Pinterest board, and smelled like a hamster’s cage. There was a comfortable bed with a charming quilt, a floating bookshelf affixed to the wall that held several houseplants as well as a large crystal, and a few pink velvet-covered seats. The gently sloping white-gloss walls gave the overall impression of being within a tooth.
I decided to explore the property. First to greet me as I stepped back out from my bunker was Dolly, the Jersey cow to whom an entire page of the check-in guide had been dedicated. (“She’s two years old and she’s full of personality!”) I tried in vain to attract her attention, but she didn’t give a shit about me. That is, until I discovered the dispenser full of cow pellets, which I used to keep her captive for about four minutes.
“Dolly,” I said, “What are we going to do tonight?” She wandered away.
Cicadas, or maybe crickets chirped as I walked over to the metal silo where I had been told I could expect a toilet.
The giant potato’s giant bathroom deserves its own moment of tribute. It was a masterpiece in scale and in energy, with concentric brick flooring, a walk-in shower, and a bidet presented without comment. It was reaching for hammam and hitting closer to airport Sofitel, itself a commendable feat for a previously empty oversized metal bucket. In the center of the silo, there was a large bathtub beneath a skylight. It was nearly seven o’clock at night, but the summer sun filled the peaceful space.
I lay on the brick floor, and looked up at the light.
It should be noted that I fucking love potatoes. I cannot get enough of them, especially in fried or roasted forms. I love to dunk them in mayonnaise-based sauces, like they are my crispy little babies and the mayo is their swaddle. I love to boil the miniature round ones and pop them into my mouth one by one as if I am a Renaissance prince. I love the thick, long ones that are gnarled like a witch’s thumb, and I love the generic starchy ones. I will even consume gnocchi, which is commonly accepted to be the most cursed of pasta shapes.
Potato farmers had a notoriously tough 2020. Potatoes for food service make up roughly 55% of all potato crops, so when the shutdowns hit, they led to 1.5 billion pounds of potatoes, trapped in the supply chain. On some asinine level, this made me all the more interested in spending a night in the World’s Largest Potato. If there were ever a time to support a crop—“support” as defined extremely loosely as “through patronage of an obvious tourist trap generally promoting its existence”—this was it. The World’s Largest Potato seemed to have been constructed from fiberglass to tour the country on a flatbed and then converted into a guesthouse replete with a mini fridge for me, and me alone.
Had I been paying more attention to the trend of Americans seeking smaller and smaller spaces in which to lodge, I might have come across Alex Wilkinson’s 2011 story in The New Yorker about the rise of the tiny house movement. Wilkinson reported that, at time of print, some several hundred to one thousand tiny houses existed in the United States.
“Typically,” he wrote, “They are between a hundred and a hundred and thirty square feet, roughly the size of a covered wagon.”
Had I been paying more attention to the trend of Americans seeking smaller and smaller spaces in which to lodge, I might have come across Kristie Wolfe’s portfolio of Airbnbs. I might have learned that she was something of an overlord in Tiny House Americana, with properties like the 288-square foot “Hobbit Inn” in Orondo, Washington, where hygge-chasers can pay $400/day to watch the sun rise through a wood-rimmed porthole.
Had I been paying more attention at all, it might have been less of a surprise when the World’s Largest Potato began to feel a little small.
The first indication that things were not going so well in the giant potato was when I drove to a nearby truck stop for scotch tape to fix my glasses, and I didn’t want to leave.
“The Boise stage stop truck stop up the road was originally opened in the early 1900s by postmaster Joseph Boyle. He owned and managed the store until his robbery and murder in 1921, which was never solved!” the check-in guide had trilled.
I cracked a Hard Seltzer in the parking lot and watched as burly men filled the tanks of their trucks with gasoline, abruptly and profoundly jealous that they had somewhere they had to be.
When I arrived back at the potato, Dolly was gone.
“Our crispy potatoes are pretty good,” said the server of a bar in Boise, the first one I found that was open.
“I’ll have the prosciutto plate,” I said, trying to avoid eye contact—my hair was matted to my head with sweat, and my glasses were crudely taped together like those of a boy wizard.
I had fled the potato some hours after my return from the truck stop. I wish I could say the intervening time was a blur, but I remember vividly how each moment passed. How I drank another Hard Seltzer at the coffee table, alternating between the club chairs, and then scratched a mosquito bite for 40 minutes. How I spent time running my hands over things, and threatening to “journal.” How I tried to read, but couldn’t get my brain to latch onto any words. How my ears began to ring, and I could feel the double-step of my heartbeat as I looked around the small enclosure, questioning how the air got in. Or out.
How I had wondered what was happening in New York. Were the tall men who lived across the airshaft having one of their 80s parties? Was it extremely unpleasant for all of the tenants? I felt nostalgic for the cigarette smoke and the sound of someone screaming, “Jen, don’t puke there, that’s a cat!” wafting through the radiator into my bedroom.
Mostly, I was aware of an ephemeral dread, an anxiety of solitude, and despite the air freshener I’d purchased at the truck stop, a persisting odor of wood shavings and rodent musk. It was nothing like what I had imagined being inside of a potato would be like.
So I made off into the night, in search of a distraction. And there, at a sticky high top in a mostly empty bar, I had found it.
For a while, I watched an older couple make withering remarks to one another about who had consumed more wine, while I did the crossword. At one point, the man hooked a finger in my direction and said to his wife, “That girl’s had two glasses of pinot and I don’t see you treating her like she’s your G-D dad,” as if I couldn’t see or hear them. It was wonderful.
When a boisterous patron a few tables over cleared his throat and began to recount to the rest of his table a detailed account of the time a dog had had diarrhea in the trunk of his station wagon, I was downright delighted.
At some point, I made my way to a Holiday Inn Express for a few hours of sleep. I lost consciousness looking out the window, at the trees.
“Oh my god,” said David Gonzalez, when I called to discuss my meltdown. He was Google-ing the giant potato as I described my failed attempt to commune with myself in my ultimate, mythical escape. “This thing looks like a giant turd.”
I wanted to know what he made of unsuccessful attempts at escapism.
“I wouldn’t say your escape was unsuccessful,” he said. “You did go see the potato. It just sucked.”
The potato didn’t suck, I wanted to clarify. It was I who sucked. It was I who had needed to escape my own escape.
In his opinion, I had made a perfectly reasonable attempt to live out a fantasy, but when I got to the object of my obsession, it hadn’t lived up to my own constructed hype. Perhaps because there were no windows.
“But you did it,” he said. “That’s awesome.”
“So,” I asked, “Escapism itself can be good, but I specifically fucked it up?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You could say that.”
The next day, when dawn broke, I left the Holiday Inn Express, and drove back to the potato to get my things.
Dolly was there, chewing some cud. She sneezed in my direction with disdain. I walked from the car to the potato’s only entrance, searching the grass for proof that the rabbit I had seen was real. I could not find any.
Inside, as I shoved my clothing into a bag, I began to feel great shame that I couldn’t hack it in the giant potato. Yes, I had touched a wild beast, and I had watched a real or imaginary bunny frolic, and I had sat back and breathed country air as several trains passed me by, horns blaring — but something inside me had unspooled. I had violated my own fantasy of the future.
Then, suddenly, I heard the crunch of gravel and a few shouts. I gathered my bags and stepped back out into the morning light. A minivan had pulled up and parked next to my rental, and a woman and many kids clattered out from its bowels, clown car-style, to gaze upon the six-ton potato. I smiled, waved, and started to get into my own vehicle.
“Hey! Wait!” called the woman, taking a few steps toward me, the rest of her brood in tow. “Did you stay here?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said: a kind of lie, a kind of truth.
She told me that she was on a road trip through Idaho with her children. They’d thought about spending last night in the World’s Largest Potato, but by the time they’d gotten around to booking it, the potato had been reserved.
“Look at that frickin’ thing!” one of the little boys interrupted, shouting up at his mother.
Then he turned to me: “Where are all the windows?”
“There aren’t any,” I told him.
“Not a single one.”
I said goodbye, climbed into my car, and drove away.
On The Docket: What To Read, Watch & Listen To
- Do yourself a favor and read Iva Dixit’s Letter of Recommendation for raw red onions.
- Paris Hilton has a Netflix cooking show, and it’s deeply confusing. There’s so, so much to say about it and to scream about it. But first, I have a question: where is she getting her recipes for things like unicorn-cannoli and heart-shaped ravioli? She dictates instructions from a notebook in which she seems to have hand-copied actual recipes in multi-colored crayon, but never mentions attribution. What is going on?
- Have you heard? Whole milk is back, baby!
- Mayukh Sen, former Food52-er, has an excellent-looking book coming out this November called Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. Lucky us, The New Yorker has decided to run excerpts from the book leading up to its pub date. The first one, an excerpt from Sen’s chapter on Madeleine Kamman, is out now.
- I read Elyse Inamine’s profile of Sheldon Simeon, and then frantically made a long list of everything I can’t wait to make from his new book, Cook Real Hawai’i.
- I’ll give an honorable mention to all of the sinister smoothie shots in Hulu original Nine Perfect Strangers.
It’s peak tomato season for several more weeks, which means I’ve been shirking all responsibilities to scroll through tomato pics on the internet with the fervency of a teen boy who has just discovered free porn.
This in particular caught my eye, and I’m hoping Ballymaloe will make it into a kitchen poster sometime soon: