Many years ago, I used to barbecue for my parents and my aunt and uncle, on summer weekends.
I used to make simple roasts on a Weber kettle, which turned out good, even back then.
My uncle by marriage was a very wealthy dentist. He had grown up so poor that he had often been hungry, and his stomach had actually shrunk from hunger. He could only eat small quantities at one time, and was always hungry. While he was wealthy, he was very frugal, to be polite. He was usually friendly, but sometimes he would get very upset for reasons that no one else understood.
One day, just after I finished cooking, and was about to put out the fire, he showed up with a potato clutched in his hand. He smiled and asked if he could use the fire. I was astonished, as my uncle had never been known to cook anything. I agreed, and watched with fascination, as he buried the potato in the burned down coals, carefully arranging each coal with the tongs as if he was painting a portrait. This procedure took a long time, until he was satisfied that the arrangement of the coals was perfect. “Don’t touch it!” He snarled, then walked off.
Sometime later, he dug the potato out of the coals, and put it on a plate. It was burned totally black. “Is he actually going to eat that?” I wondered.
Well, he did eat it, with nothing else. He broke the potato open, and slowly ate the inside of the potato, with an expression of pure bliss on his face. The rest of us watched in wonder, unable to understand why he was enjoying it so much.
Being curious, I asked him if I could have a taste. His face twisted in the instant fury that sometimes came over him — “Get your own potato!” he shrieked. I backed off.
The next weekend, I barbecued again, and he showed up with his potato again, after the cooking was over. He went through the same procedure, and blissfully ate the scorched potato as we quietly watched him. This happened week after week. I did not dare ask him for a taste.
His potato antics became a subject for family discussion. Everyone agreed that the potato must taste terrible. But why did he go to so much trouble, and why did he enjoy it so much?
One week, when he appeared to ask for permission to use the fire, I asked if he could make one for me. I braced for the explosion, but he smiled, and cheerfully agreed. He returned with another potato. When the potatoes were done, he placed my potato on a plate. It was burned black, as usual. The potato skin broke open at the touch of the fork. I tasted some of the inside, expecting it to taste burned and bad. I was wrong. It was wonderful, easily the best vegetable I had ever tasted. It was soft, hot, with a surprisingly complex and utterly delicious flavor, somewhat sweet and smoky. I began to eat it slowly, enjoying every bite.
I tried many times to make potatoes like that, but they were never anything special. Nothing like the masterpiece he made. He had a knack, or he knew something, a way of doing it, that he never shared.
I asked him a couple of times, but he would never answer.
There is so much traditional cooking knowledge that we have lost, countless treasures that used to be passed down from generation to generation. They are worth saving.
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