Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Potato and James Joyce: Surprised?

Not even a month into 2008, and I think I have found a story that is sure to count among my year’s favorites, all because of my respect and admiration for, you guessed it . . . potato salad. From WOFL Fox 35 in Orlando, Florida: Pastor Renee Brewster “says she had been looking for an excuse to get out of making potato salad. ‘I was hesitant about making the potato salad because Sister Frankie makes the potato salad at church and I said lord if it’s not for me to make potato salad then send me a sign.’” Sister Frankie must make damn fine potato salad for Brewster to be so intimidated that she asked for a sign from on high. I guess no one really likes peeling potatoes; must be why it’s what prisoners always have to do in the movies. Brewster got the sign she was looking for on the first tater that she halved, but tossed it aside because it looked rotten. Her granddaughter pointed out, however, that it wasn’t rotten. It was an image of Jesus on the Cross.

This form is kind of a hybrid icon. The cross is unmistakable. The Jesus looks like He is in a robe, and the beard stands out in the right-hand side half, but it is a very different look from the bleeding, head lolling figure so familiar to us through art. To me, this Jesus looks more like the teacher, not the tortured.

Renee Brewster is married to Bishop Winston Brewster, so you have to figure that they’re pretty religious folk, but I don’t know if dodging kitchen duties merits a prayer. The potato has been put in the freezer. Brewster did end up making the potato salad – so much for her sign from the Lord. According to her husband, it was “the best [she] ever was almost as good as Sister Frankie's.”

Certain of these stories involve a person actively looking for a sign, but most of these visual manifestations are stumbled upon. A tree, a section of wall, the wood grain on a closet door – everyday it looks the same, but then one day it displays a difference, or the viewer possesses a different vision. I couldn’t help but think of Madonna of the Toast after reading this: “Every morning he hallowed himself anew in the presence of some holy image or mystery.” That’s James Joyce, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m rereading it. It is our contemplative protagonist (and Joyce alter ego) Stephen Dedalus in the presence of “some holy image or mystery” on a daily basis. It is true to say that in this scene he is contemplating something far greater than potato salad, but it is just as true to say that these visions, no matter what sets them off, come from the same place: that place of the human need for answers, wherever they may hide.

P.S. Want to make the best potato salad? Use a couple of teaspoons of sweet gherkin pickle juice.

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