It was only this past July, when talking to a friend who was quarantining in Tennessee, that I learned that periodical cicadas spend their whole lives underground until it’s time to mate and reproduce and then, almost immediately thereafter, die. She mentioned they were having “a cicada summer,” and she was having a grand old time sitting on her porch in the evenings practically bathing in their song. I was confused. “Wait, are you saying there are summers without cicadas?” I asked — and instantly tried not to be mortified by my ignorance. To be 54 and learning only now that there are silent summers and cicada summers and that there are, depending on the type of insect, either 13 or 17 years in between! If I had known this sooner, I think I would have organized my life differently and scheduled my travel plans around the brood’s mating calendar, just so I could be sure to be on a porch somewhere when they started singing.
While it came with a little sting of embarrassment to have never learned this on my own before, mostly I’m just thrilled to finally know. It did make me realize, though, that it’s just always going to be rather uncomfortable to not know what everyone else already seems to. When have I ever not wanted to bluff my way through those moments so as not to be caught out as ignorant?
When I arrived on campus for my second freshman year of college, I thought I was a precocious and savvy 17-year-old — having already lived on my own in New York City, already worked in restaurants and a raucous nightclub, already dropped out of a different college the year before, already been in trouble with the law (and been charged with two felonies). But my new housemate, a graduating senior I met that afternoon, hooked me by the arm and cruised me across campus to the welcome convocation — where I suddenly froze as I realized I had never been to an academic lecture before. Dr. Gloria Joseph, the love of Audre Lorde, was at the lectern, discussing third-world feminism, followed by the Pakistani political scientist Eqbal Ahmad, who used words like “anti-imperialism” and “anti-colonialism,” while I sat in the back of the hushed amphitheater, surrounded by nodding classmates who appeared already fluent in these concepts.
The next day I took a good long walk in the crisp New England air to work it all out, to ask myself some big questions under the scrutiny of no one — this Thoreauvian remedy at least I had known since before high school. Walking and walking, past the apple orchards, alone in the hushed privacy of the pine-needle floor of the surrounding woods and coming eventually to the edge of a vast expanse of hard clay fields of Western Massachusetts, I felt less stupid than I did the day before.
The fields were nothing but clodded-up dirt: The harvest of whatever had been growing there must have already happened. I assumed it would be harmless to trudge across as I continued clearing my ashamed mind. But with my first few strides, I kicked up a small, shaggy cluster of what I thought were dry, spooky eggs — some kind of lizard larva, I feared. What could possibly grow underground like this? Snakes? Insects? I picked them up and suddenly saw: little new potatoes! For miles. Just 24 hours as a college freshman, and I had been in my first lecture hall, understood suddenly that feminism was not a static or monolithic point of view and seen potatoes growing in the earth. At least this last small discovery I was able to have alone, so it carries no sting and remains a purely joyful one.
In keeping with joyful, this way of cooking little new potatoes by packing them into a mound of wet kosher salt and baking them until the salt is dry and hard as earth is a wonder of its own. You can even season the mound of salt, as I have here, with things that will add flavor and color and aroma. Rosemary is bracingly fragrant during the baking. And the floral, perfumey pink peppercorns are perfectly delicate. I love their subtlety here. I make a compound butter using some of both, which you can swoop the potatoes through while still they’re warm for extra deliciousness. But I’ve kept the butter purposely mild, to let the real revelation be the creamy, freshly new potato itself. New potatoes just harvested in the early fall are different from those that have been cellared over the long winter. Their skins are so thin and tight that they snap when you bite into them.
But the greatest fun is when it comes time to present this dish. Bring the curious-looking pan right to the table, so that everyone can puzzle over its mysterious contents, hidden beneath that snowy crust. Then give the pan a very sturdy and muscular rap or two on the table to crack open the salt crust, revealing the piping hot, perfectly seasoned little beauties within. The delight for everyone is palpable. Then just serve them as is, letting everyone dig out the warm potatoes from the fault lines of the cracked crust. The hunt for them is a joy, the appeal is irresistible and, luckily, new potatoes come up annually, so you don’t have to wait 17 years for such a grand old time.
Recipe: Salt-Baked New Potatoes With Pink-Peppercorn Butter
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