To Peel Potatoes - Winning Peace Corps essay on Ukraine

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Ukraine: Peace Corps Ukraine : Web Links for Ukraine RPCVs: To Peel Potatoes - Winning Peace Corps essay on Ukraine

By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, June 23, 2001 - 7:59 am: Edit Post

To Peel Potatoes - Winning Peace Corps essay on Ukraine

To Peel Potatoes - Winning Peace Corps essay on Ukraine

1996 Experience Award, Winning Essay:

To Peel Potatoes

by John P. Deever (Ukraine 1993-95)

"Life's too short to peel potatoes," a woman in my local supermarket announced, as she put a box of instant mashed potatoes into her cart. When I overheard her I nearly shrieked.

After recently returning from my Peace Corps stint in Ukraine, I tend to get defensive about the potato in all its forms: sliced, scalloped, diced, chopped, grated, or julienned; then boiled, browned, french-fried, slow-fried, hand-mashed, baked or twice-baked - with an indulgent dollop of butter or sour cream, yes thank you.

A large portion of my time in Ukraine was spent preparing what was, in the winter, nearly the only vegetable available. Minutes and hours added up to a string of days handling potatoes. I sized up the biggest, healthiest spuds in the market and bought bucketsful; I hauled them home over icy sidewalks.

Winter evenings - when it got dark at four p.m. - I scrubbed my potatoes thoroughly under the icy tap (we had no hot water) until my hands were numb. Though I like the rough, sour peel and prefer potatoes skin-on, Chernobyl radiation lingered in the local soil; we were advised to strip off the skins. So I peeled and peeled, pulling the dull knife towards my thumb as Svetlana Adamovna had taught me, and brown-flecked stripe after stripe dropped off to reveal a golden tuber beneath. Finally I sliced them with a "plop" into boiling water or a hot frying pan. My potatoes, my kartopli, sizzled and cooked through, warming up my tiny kitchen in the dormitory until the windows clouded over with steam.

Very often my Ukrainian friends and I peeled and cooked potatoes together, either in my kitchen or in Tanya's or Misha's or Luda's, all the while laughing and talking and learning from each other. We kept our hands busy (we had to, to eat) and that made sitting and communicating easier, less formal, and never awkward. Preparing potatoes became for me both a happy prelude to nourishment and, when shared with others, an interactive ritual giving wider scope and breadth to my life.

But how could I explain that feeling to the Instant Woman? I wanted to say, "On the contrary, life's too short for Instant Anything."

Now back home, I'm pressed by all the Instant Things To Do. In Ukraine, accomplishing two simple objectives in one day - like successfully phoning Kiev from the post office and then finding a store with milk -satisfied me pretty well. I taught my classes, worked on other projects, and tried to stay happy and healthy along the way.

Now it takes an hour of fast driving to get to work, as opposed to 12 minutes of leisurely walking in Ukraine. I spend hours fiddling with my computer to send Instant E-mail. Talking to three people at once during a phone call is efficient - not an accident of Soviet technology. With so much time saving, I ought to have hours and hours to peel potatoes. Somehow I don't.

What I wish I'd said to the woman in the supermarket is this: "Life's too short to be shortened by speeding it up."

But I wasn't able to formulate that thought so quickly. Instead I went to the frozen food section and stared at Budget Gourmet microwave dinners for a while, eventually coming to the sad, heavy realization that the Szechuan Chicken looked delicious.

John P. Deever is employed at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley and is working on a nonfiction book about life in the Ukraine. He gives credit to fellow Ukraine RPCV Lisa Swaim (1991-93) for helping him reduce a three-page potato thesis down to this award winner.

By Anonymous ( - on Wednesday, December 06, 2006 - 1:54 pm: Edit Post

I'm passing this article onto my friends as a wake up call. Over the past few years, I've become more and more aware that life keeps speeding by me and although I seem to get a lot done, I haven't enjoyed one second of it, because I'm usually rushing onto the next thing before I'm finished with the first one. Not to mention that real mashed potatoes taste a million times better than some dehydrated paper looking flakes no matter how much milk or butter you add in order to bring them back to life. I'll take my lumpy mashed potatoes any day. Thanks for this wonderful reminder to stop and peel the potatoes.

By Anonymous ( - on Friday, February 02, 2007 - 3:45 pm: Edit Post

I'm from Ukraine myself, and I completely agree with everything you've written. I can't fully explain to people either how important it is to be happy with the food we have, etc. I have a history with potatoes too, in the summers I've spent in Ukraine there is always that "potato week" spent picking the potatoes from the ground, etc.etc. all of which is done with hands, a bucket, and a horse! Thanks for the article, I can really relate to it.

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.