According to our father, one of my sisters, as a teenager, made the best fried potatoes he’d ever eaten. The secret? She would let the potatoes brown until they were just thiiiis close to burning, which meant they came out perfectly, deliciously crisp. Here’s how she—and perhaps others of us in the family, who are certainly not going to admit who I am—does it:
Peel and slice however many potatoes seems about right for the number of people you’re feeding. Go ahead, toss in one more—these will be so good, people are going to take second helpings.
Chop an onion, or two, or half of one, depending on your taste.
Heat oil in an iron skillet.
Toss the potatoes and onions into the skillet, spread them around, turn the heat down to medium.
Sit down at the kitchen table with whatever book you are currently reading. Resume reading until you begin to smell potatoes on the verge of burning. Finish paragraph, mark place in book, put it down, stir potatoes.
Repeat as needed, until chapter is finished and potatoes are brown and crisp on both sides. Salt to taste (the potatoes, not the book) and serve.
See? So simple anyone can do it. There are, however, a couple of important secrets to success.
One is careful selection of the main ingredient. Oh, don’t worry about the potatoes. Red, russet, large, small, peeled, unpeeled—it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you have on hand will work just fine.
No, what you have to choose wisely is the book. One with especially long paragraphs can be a problem. Even worse is a gripping mystery or thriller, especially if you’re near the end, and in just two or three more pages you’ll uncover the murderer or the hero will escape and succeed in saving the free world, and you just can’t put it down. Right and justice may prevail, but that’s small consolation in exchange for a skillet full of charred potatoes.
A deeply emotional story has its pitfalls, as well. Say the long-lost lovers have just been reunited, or the almost-villain has just redeemed himself with a noble self-sacrifice and is breathing his last, and you are reading as fast as you can, with a lump in your throat and a damp wad of tissues clutched in your hand. Even if you manage to come up for air and another tissue in time to keep the potatoes from burning, there’s a serious risk of them turning out soggy and oversalted as a result of overflowing tears.
The second secret is, no matter how exciting a scene you’re in the middle of, put the book down while you attend to the potatoes. Continuing to read while you stir might seem like a good idea, but like so many other methods of multi-tasking, it is less efficient than it seems. For one thing, you risk spattering hot oil all over your book or e-reader. Too many little blobs of grease on the screen, and not only is it hard to make out the words, but the device might not respond to your finger-swipes when you want to turn a page. (Please don’t ask me how I know this.) And you don’t want to be that library patron—the one who returns books splattered with yellow spots and smelling like the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant that barely passed its last inspection.
Besides, with your attention on your reading, there’s a good chance of serious stirring errors. Either you’ll miss half of the potatoes and burn the others—in which case you might just as well have sat at the table and finished the chapter. Or you’ll stir too forcefully and risk knocking the hot skillet completely off the stove. Then you’ll not only have a mess to clean up, but you might get a serious burn. Even worse, if the iron skillet falls on your foot you’ll end up with broken bones and have to be taken off to the emergency room.
If that happens, you’ll get no potatoes. Although, while you wait for the doctor, you will have plenty of time to finish your book.