Matthew Sweeney

(1952 / Lifford)

Pommes Sautées - Poem by Matthew Sweeney

As I walked up the Rue des Martyrs with my bag of small, perfect, waxy potatoes I doffed my imaginary hat to Monsieur Parmentier. Well, I do have a hat and wore it a lot not so long ago to cover a healing wound on my forehead but this wasn't necessary anymore, and anyway the hat wasn't with me now in Paris. Nor was Monsieur Parmentier, though any remains of him lie in a plot in Père Lachaise ringed by potato plants.

I would not be intending to cook my potatoes if not for the duplicitous actions of Parmentier back in the late years of the 18th century. After he'd realized that this odd-shaped tuber looted from the Incas in Peru (along with their gold and silver) was extremely nutritious, and no one would believe him, he'd come up with a ruse. Using money given to him by King Louis XVI, he purchased a plot of impoverished ground outside Paris, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and planted it with potatoes. When the time to dig them came, he built a fence around them and put armed guards outside it. These men wore uniforms the color of potatoes. They were told to leak the news that they were guarding an extremely precious food. Then, one night, they left their post. Thieves arrived within a couple of hours and stole the entire crop. Over the next few days the potatoes were sold in the city's markets as the food of kings.

So my guests wouldn't know they would be eating the food of kings. Nor would I tell them, though I might well concoct a story about the breed of pigs their pork chops had come from. And the posh wine that had yielded the wine vinegar I'd used in the salad dressing. I could try telling them I'd climbed over the fence of Père Lachaise the previous night, armed with a phone-torch, a troweling spade, and a canvas bag, and dug the potatoes from Monsieur Parmentier's plot — only taking the small ones that were right for pommes sautées, of course — but I know they wouldn't believe me.

I was distracted from these smug reveries by my mobile phone ringing. I dug it out of my pocket and answered it, thinking one advantage of being in France was that nobody rang me. The voice at the other end was not one I recognized. It said, at first quietly, "Are you OK?" then in a louder voice, "Please tell me you're OK over there," and that was it. When I went to check the number, it had been withheld. What had I landed myself in, I wondered? I went home to deal with my 19th-century French meal.

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Poem Submitted: Wednesday, June 28, 2017

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