A column that shares the story of a very simple meal—something that can offer nourishment without too much effort. These simple meals are good any time, but are especially helpful during difficult times.
Listen to me read the below here:
In my early 20s, my roommate surprised me by parading into our room with a group of friends and acquaintances, singing “Happy Birthday” to me while carrying a baked potato on a plate. The baked potato of course had a candle stuck in its fluffy, vulnerable maw, and was likely microwaved–you can always tell when a potato has been microwaved because its insides come away in chunks, rather than the satisfyingly snowy texture that results from the oven.
I love baked potatoes. I love them enough that I’ll forgive them the fact that they take an hour or more to bake. I never pre-heat my oven–I’m too lazy for that–but I do insist on using the oven for that perfectly fluffy, worthy-of-a-potato-ricer texture.
The baked potato has since become a symbol, to me, of what it means for me to be a freelancer and small business owner: I can spend an hour waiting for a humble potato to bake while I work on other things. The potato will be ready for me, starchy and perfect, when I finally wander into the kitchen and test it with a knife.
I used to live alone. I do not live alone any longer. But I still work alone, and during the day, I indulge in some of the habits I used to have as a single person; back then, they were protective measures, acts that made me feel less swallowed up by my own apartment, acts of gentle communion with myself. Now, they feel like celebrations of the person I used to be, and also pride for what I’ve become: I still love being alone, acting out these secret alone behaviors, and I will always return to them.
One of these habits that I cannot seem to shake is eating baked potatoes. The baked potato is, you see, the perfect food for one. It comes in its own case, an oblong steaming skin full of starch that you can cradle in your hands. It is also bland; it will not offend the stomach or break the flow of thoughts if you are writing or dreaming. But also, it can be a canvas for wild creativity. You can add jalapenos, sriracha, fresh chopped thyme, a squeeze of lemon, peanut sauce, a dollop of tart Greek yogurt, a smothering of melted smoked gouda. The possibilities of a potato are endless, even though it starts so solitary and so plain. Now you see why this food is such a balm to the lonely. It is pure potentiality, all contained in a ruddy tuber that doesn’t start out looking like much. I still love to eat them for lunch.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR BAKING A POTATO
- russet potato
- sour cream
- shredded cheddar cheese
- if you really want to get fancy, you can try bits of bacon and cut-up pieces of green onion, but I never do this
- Wash your potato thoroughly.
- Stab the top of your potato 5-10 times with a fork or steak knife. This is ostensibly to help warm air get into the potato, but who knows.
- Heat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Pop in your potato.
- Go work on whatever most urgent thing you have on deadline at the moment. Or procrastinate by scrolling down on Twitter. Who am I to tell you how to live your life.
- In an hour, check on your potato by stabbing it with a fork. It should go through the potato like a knife sliding through butter. Do not be fooled by a potato that’s seems reasonably done, but won’t be fluffy and will taste of disappointment.
- If it’s not done, check every ten minutes or so until it is.
- Remove potato with an oven mitt. Turn off the oven (I always forget this part).
- Slice down the middle of the potato the long way with your knife. Then push the ends of the potato toward one another in order to make that satisfyingly fluffy center.
- Add toppings liberally.
Rachel Syme is an American journalist, writer and editor. Her long-form work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Matter, and Grantland, among other publications. She writes about a variety of topics, primarily “culture, women, music, history, film, fashion, television, books, art, politics, New York, the Internet, feminism, visual culture and whatever else crosses my path in a given week.”