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Grandma Rachel's Best Baked Potato in the World
By Shirley Coles
My ability to remember takes me back only to the age of about four and a half…to a time when we had to move from Bronx, New York to a town called Port Chester…a suburb of the big city. My father, still a very young man of thirty-two was already ill with a failing heart, which was to prove fatal in five more years when I was ten.
Our move took us into the home of Grandma Rachel and Grandpa Joe, where I was nurtured and loved until I left to marry.
As an adult now, I know without a doubt that Grandma Rachel lives as part of me.
Her Yiddish was the language of the house; her apron and worn black shoes were her costume, her laugh was my music, and her rules governed our daily life. There was never time for boredom after school or during summer vacations; somehow she always had ideas that were either learning experiences or downright fun. She taught me how to decipher the strange letters in the Jewish newspaper …The Forward…and this was often done sitting in her bed together before sleep. That is for another story….one which still causes me to laugh and sometimes cry at the same time.
One fall afternoon, when Indian summer was still upon us and household chores were done, supper slowly simmering on her sturdy old gas stove…and my homework complete, Grandma Rachel asked me if I'd like to bake a potato. I knew there would be at least four at the supper table and none but Grandma would usually bake them. My confusion was evident. I said nothing as I watched her go to her cupboard, select a perfect potato, which went into the deep pocket of her flowered apron, don a sweater….motioning to me to do the same…and pick up her knitting. "Come, maydelah, come", she said.
I followed her down the back stairs into the garden and we proceeded to the Concord grape arbor which Grandpa Joseph had planted many years before I was born. To my eight year old eyes, it seemed huge and beautiful. The purple grapes hung in fragrant clusters, close to harvest time and Grandpa's secret wine making.
In the dappled sunlight which filtered through the lush greenery overhead, she placed two folding chairs and sat down upon one of them, settling her dumpling like body comfortably with a sigh of contentment and a look which said to me: 'now you will see something wonderful'.
I started to sit in the second chair, but she shook her head, "No, No, shayne, you will do the work; you will bake the potato". "I don't know how, Grandma"., I said, whining with frustration. "Of course you don't know how. I will sit and I will knit and you will learn the way of my grandma and her grandma. Go find a big bunch of stones and put them in a pile, yes?" Picking up her knitting, she watched me while her hands busied themselves. This done, I stood up, brushing the dirt from my small hands. "A little dirt wouldn't hurt no one", she said. "In fact, my own mother used to say you have to eat a pound of dirt before you die". All of this was said in an odd mix of Yiddish and English which was totally understandable to me.
"Now, find a bunch of small sticks and put them in a little pile on top of the stones".
She sat forward watching me…it was as though she had become part of the doing and her eyes were bright with the task ahead.
"Yes, Shirley, that is good…wonderful….perfect. Now I must do the next thing…so watch carefully". She rose from her chair and drew from her apron a long kitchen match, a paper napkin which she instructed me to tear into small strips…and the potato. Putting the scraps carefully among the sticks, she lit the match and set them ablaze. I was mesmerized, watching the dancing flames. She handed me the potato, saying: "Now, Grandma and Shirley will sit for a few minutes and let the fire play and get very hot". This I did, sitting close to her, listening to the clack of her needles and the crackling of the fire.
I watched as the small blaze spread and consumed the sticks, then was barely a flame at all. "The fire is going out, Grandma. We won't be able to bake the potato now". Grandma Rachel crossed her hands over her ample middle. "The fire is not dancing any more, maydelah, but the stones are very hot now and they will bake your potato…you will see." She had me ever so carefully place the potato atop the stones. "Now we will wait, but we will be very busy while we sit. Our eyes will watch the beautiful potato bake….our ears will hear the music of the baking, the birds, the breeze through the leaves and even our own breathing…our noses will catch all the delicious smells of the potato and even the grapes around us. When an hour is up, our mouths will water…and we shall have the most perfect baked potato in the world."
And it was….because I made it with Grandma Rachel.
* * * * * *
Recipe & Ingredients
1 pile (16) of stones about the size of large matzo balls
1 cup paper, only good news pages, shredded
1 large Russet potato, washed and dried
1 long kitchen match
1 huggable Jewish Grandma
1 kissable Jewish Granddaughter, about 8 - 12 yrs. old.
2 folding chairs
With about one hour to spare and share, set up chairs and be sure Grandma
is comfortable on one of them. As she directs, make a bed of the stones
in the shade of a grape arbor or tree. Add the shredded good news paper
atop and among the stones...then come to Grandma for a big kiss (She
kisses so loudly, the birds fly away....but it's nice!) Grandma should
now light the pile with the kitchen match. When she makes a ptuu ptuu
little spit on the hot coals and say's it's time for the potato, carefully
lower it onto the glowing ashes.
Now, don't touch, both sit and talk about how Grandma and Grandpa
came to this country. The talking helps the
potato cook.. After an hour, take a stick and roll the potato onto a
plate. Make sure to douse the fire before leaving, fold up the chairs,
and walk fast to the kitchen.
Grandma should get a knife and some pretty yellow butter, some salt
and some pepper, cut the potato in half exactly. Two plates, two forks,
and a deep breath....then the first taste...."Himmel, maydelah, it's the
world's best potato I ever ate" Grandma will chew and smile and kvell.
from the August 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine