Opinions, Column

The Importance of Potato Skins

When I think about love, I think about the vegetable soup my grandmother ladles into my grandfather’s bowl each night. I think about the plate of scrambled eggs my father made for me every morning in high school. And when I think about romance, about dating and courtship, I think about potato skins.

When my parents were dating, they liked to meet up for fried potato skins and Long Island iced teas at TGI Fridays. They both lived at home, an hour apart, and these dates were a respite from their parents’ watchful eyes. I imagine them sitting close together in a vinyl booth, the salty smell of potato skins wafting up at them, their hands curved shyly around frosty glasses.

My mother sometimes slips into reveries about these dates, always with a sly smile and moony-eyes. As she recounts her courtship with my father, I wonder about the magic of eating and talking with someone you love, or even someone you really, really like, someone who makes you giddy and nervous and crazy in the most wonderful way. When my mother talks about TGI Fridays, I get a glimpse of who she was at my age. A young woman in love: with potato skins, with my father, and with the intoxicating elixir that is Long Island iced tea.

Around this time every year, dating seems to be on everyone’s mind. Kerry Cronin gives her famed “Save the Date” talk, in which she condemns the hookup culture at Boston College. According to Cronin, students have forgotten how to date. Instead, they hook up in dark Mods, with music blaring out of nearby speakers and strawberry-flavored Rubinoff still on their lips. Although casual sex is nothing new, it seems to have eclipsed romance and relationships on campus.

As a student, I don’t have much to say about hookup culture, but as a food writer, I have a lot to say about dates. After all, a date is more than just a time to get to know someone and develop a relationship. It’s also a time to eat and share great food.

So, what’s at stake with the disappearing date? Maybe students will become emotionally stunted. Maybe they’ll forget how to build healthy, fulfilling, romantic relationships. Maybe they’ll have more casual sex and scare their parents and their priests.

More progressive people than me say we shouldn’t care about these things. Relationships are more fluid now, and students have the freedom to explore their sexualities without worrying about whether or not their partners want to take them out to dinner. Without the pressures of dating, they argue, we can focus on our friends, our futures, and ourselves. To some, those who criticize hookup culture are out of touch and closed-minded.

But I do care. I care about the potato skins. I care about the intimacy and vulnerability of sharing a meal with somebody you like, and the wonderful connections we make over food. I care about the memories that aren’t being made when romance is limited to drunken hookups.

Think of your favorite family memories. How many of them were made in the kitchen or in your neighborhood? Do they evoke a certain taste or smell? When I think of my childhood Sundays, I can still smell the fresh pot of vegetable soup left on the stove to simmer all afternoon. When I think of my first date, I can still taste the mint chocolate chip ice cream and feel the dancing nerves in my stomach.

Memories of food are interwoven with the emotions we feel while eating and the people we eat with. These sensory recollections stick with us, even when the feelings and the people are gone. They can strike us suddenly and plunge us back into cherished moments. The smell of chocolate-chip cookies or the taste of apple pie can serve as a culinary time machine. Our memories of food move us, transport us, and allow us to relive the past.

When my mother thinks of potato skins, she steps back into 1982. My father isn’t a 50-year-old man with too-tight bike shorts and outdated jokes. He’s 21, and he’s sliding into the booth next to her at TGI Fridays.

With so many college students shrugging off the dating lifestyle, I wonder what will happen to the indelible link between food and romance. How will our generation ever form those evocative memories of first dates and anniversary dinners when all we ever do is hook up? Will we even know what we’ve lost?  

At her yearly talk, Cronin challenges the audience members to ask somebody on a date. Some people laugh off this challenge, while others are too terrified to even consider it. Dating is a leap into vulnerability, and it’s easy to hide behind ambiguous phrases like “we’re talking” or “we’re hanging out.” Taking up Cronin’s challenge means having to confess something scary: I like you, I want to spend time with you, and I’ll even fight over the check to prove it. Are you sweating just thinking about it?

I hope you, reader, consider the challenge. Because beyond sexual empowerment and the other contentious notions of hookup culture, there’s the simple magic of going to dinner with someone you love and building memories out of a plate of fried potato skins.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

February 20, 2017