Winter suppers seem to call for hearty dishes now and again, to welcome home the family at the close of a long hard day at work and in traffic and in all the other endeavors that Chris calls "doing battle with the forces of economy." And somehow, they also call for getting back more to the old recipes, the simpler dishes for the shorter days, home-grown or home-canned or long-simmered fare that is warm and heartening as the early dark draws in.
There's a potato dish which is almost nothing BUT potatoes, and perhaps its humble origins and the modest cost of its readily-available ingredient is accountable for its longevity. There's a lot to be said for a good, honest baked potato, with nothing but a bit of salt. A lengthwise slash, a two-handed pinch-and-push, and there's a perfect nest for a lovely golden knob of butter.
Add a bit of sour cream, and it's getting even better; you can branch out into "loaded" and "stuffed" and "twice-baked" by dint of adding more and more tasty items. Entire restaurants several years ago were billed as "potato bars" and featured more and more toppings as the competition grew. We went into one back in the day which had an entire wall lined with gallon-sized little cauldrons, black and round as Hogwarts' array, but these were filled with sauces and toppings and all manner of hot goodies such as chili and broccoli/cheese sauce and clam sauce and marinara. You could lift lids and stand indecisive til your potato got cold, and the glut of choices made it, as my Mammaw used to say, "too much sugar for a dime."
But one real, true taste of a good homey Southern dish is to be found in a pot of stewed potatoes. The dish consists of peeled potatoes, cut into bite-size chunks and simmered until fork-tender---salted water, or a mixture of milk and water---it varies from cook to cook.
A "thickening" is made by mixing flour and water, which is poured right into the simmering pot, with a brisk stirring keeping the bottom from sticking and the slurry mixing til the little blups signal that the sauce has reached the proper consistency. (Many a kitchen-proud cook shakes the flour/water in a pint jar to mix it as thoroughly as possible, then, with one hand manning a big wooden spoon for stirring, pours the liquid through a strainer into the pot. They wouldn't be caught dead serving lumpy anything, even so humble and homey a dish).
A big hunk of butter dropped in to melt, an adjustment for salt, and a few grinds of the peppermill, and it's a wonderful side dish, a soup, a stew---call it what you will; it's a wonderful taste and texture and just what comfort food is all about.
The potatoes were just always called "stewed" when made that way, and whole friendships were made and lost on whether the black pepper went in early or late. It was a ChurchLadies' joust, much like Gulliver's Big and Little Endians.
Some held that early pepper made the sauce "muddy," and others said that the pepper just "made" the dish. And then there were the handfuls-of-cheese proponents and the one bull-yon cube renegades, as well as the onion-tops afficionados.
Now THOSE were the ones who could make a dish of potatoes---I've never eaten any vichyssoise better than some of those dishes of country-kitchen stewed potatoes, with fresh-from-the-ground potatoes, lots of chive-small onion tops, shredded into dainty rounds, sometimes home-churned butter and cream fresh skimmed from the pan-tops.
And "creamed" potatoes were our local vernacular for mashed potatoes, in which more of the cream-thicker-than-the-potatoes enriched and enfattened, along with butter and salt. These two humble dishes, all from what the cooks had in the pantry, the root cellar, the storehouse, are outstanding examples of make-do magnificence.
Going into Mammaw's kitchen and lifting the lid on the big Wearever, to reveal a pepper-and-onion-topped pot of stewed potatoes---Sunday every day.