The smell of dead potato

[Found this forgotten in the drafts folder from 2018.]

Was at Ralphs and checked out the poor people veggie bin and there were three big bundles of potatoes at 99 cents each. My Irish German heart was set aflutter and I bought all three and once home dropped them into the tuber bag with the sweet potatoes and rutabaga and onions of every color. There they sat.

A day or two later I noticed a smell. I took out the garbage. Still the smell. Took out the bag full of recyclables. Still the smell. Searched every corner and crevice of the kitchen with the broom. Sniffed the garbage disposal. Nope. Sniffed myself. Nope, just a manly deodorant. The next day the odor had grown stronger and more fetid and propinquitous. Ah ha, the paper bag root cellar where I’d put the new potatoes. Sure enough, the smell emanated from it.

I reached in and removed one of the potato bundles. They were small and red and white and blue (well, purple) and smelled like potato. The next bag was full of big honking spud beasts, huge Idaho potatoid monstrosities that taste absolutely delicious baked and topped with low fat sour cream and chopped green onions (my brunch). They too smelled like potatoes. Then the next bundle, much like the first but with the faint odor of aged brick cheese, like the time we opened a block of very aged brick cheese at a party at our place and the guests mutinied, but not then but two weeks later when either the reek or the memory of the reek lingered. That smell. I laid the bundle on the counter and carefully snipped open the netting which contained it. Then ever so gingerly I picked up each potato, sniffed it, and put it down.

Finally I got to the bottom of the pile of potatoes. There in the middle was a mid sized white potato with a sickly pallor and swollen appearance. I lightly touched it and poof! it popped open and the room was fragrant with rotten potato. It was an eye watering reek. I pulled open the windows and then took the offending spud outside and threw it into the planter. Instant mulch.

Amazing how bad that rotten potato stench is. Not sure what causes it, is it the result of the fungus digesting (so to speak) the innards of the potato, or more likely the bacteria that accompanies the fungus? Doubtless I could spend the day looking this up on Google, but I won’t. (I did later, though. It’s the bacteria.) But I did remember how Irishmen digging up their fields in the 1840’s found row after row of shriveled, mushy, foul smelling potatoes, each rotten with fungus. Doubtless they smelled like this, rank as the ripest foulest cheese, and as the potato famine spread you would have smelled that same dead potato reek across the whole island (but especially in the Gaelic speaking west and south) as peasants desperately dug up every plant looking for a potato their family could eat. A million Irishmen died in the famine that followed and the smell of dead potatoes mingled everywhere with the smell of dead people into a sickly perfume till even the roses smelled of death.

Spanish Flu

Flu season always freak me out a bit. I get the shot every year, so I don’t really worry about that. It’s the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic that weirds me out. And the fact that people don’t remember it. It’s as if people forgot about WW1 or WW2. It killed that many people, 50 to 100 million across the globe. Think about it. In 1919 that was up to 5% of the world’s population. And, like AIDS, it overwhelmingly affected young, healthy adults. Almost all the deaths were late teen to late thirties. Death would occur within 72 hours, often in 24 hours, even less. You could wake up in the morning healthy and be dead by midnight. That was not uncommon. Death came horribly…you’d drown in your own lungs. The lungs themselves would harden and respiration would get more and more difficult and then they’d fill up with fluid and you’d drown. Literally drown. You turn a ghastly greenish hue as death approached. It was a flu like no other. It was the worst pestilence to sweep the planet since the Black Plague. Towns were decimated. Villages in Alaska were annihilated. In Philadelphia the dead were wrapped in shrouds and left on the sidewalks for the disposal teams. The city ran out of coffins. A troop train full of healthy recruits that left Georgia arrived in New York City with virtually all aboard dead, dying or desperately ill. And that was just this country. The stories from China and India are beyond belief. The only disease in human history that rivals the Spanish flu in sheer morbid power was the Black Plague. And this was less than a hundred years ago. There are people still alive today who remember it. But nobody asks them.

So strange it’s so forgotten now. Perhaps deliberately. No one wants to think about it. People love to think about asteroids, Fukushima, Ebola. No one wants to think about a new Spanish Flu.

And that Spanish Flu, they’ve discovered via autopsies on the frozen dead in Alaska, was an H1N1 virus. So we know what that type of flu is capable of. We were lucky in 2009, it was a mild version. It was an H1N1 pandemic, to be sure, and infected a couple hundred million people (I know I had it), but killed only a couple ten thousand. Same age group that was felled by the Spanish Flu, that is healthy adults, and with the same virulence, killing within 24-48 hours. It showed us it was still capable of annihilating a hundred million, just not that time. It’s come around again this year, though. Perhaps we’ll be hearing more about it. Or perhaps we’ll be lucky again.

And get the other flu shot too, the annual flu. The CDC estimates that 5-15% of all human beings on the planet come down with a respiratory tract infection from an influenza virus every year, and typically a quarter to a half million people worldwide die from it. In a bad year it might kill a million. But then the H1N1 never killed a hundred million before 1919 either. So you never know. One of these years some ungodly awful flu will sweep the world, and the unvaccinated will become desperately ill and begin dying, perhaps in huge numbers. Maybe they’ll be healthy young adults again, or maybe they’ll be the senior citizens. Maybe it’ll be children. Maybe it’ll be everybody. Who knows, there’s no way to predict. But the vaccinated will attend a lot of funerals, and the unvaccinated will hide in their homes, wondering if they’re next.

Get a flu shot.

Mass grave in Labrador, 1919.

Mass grave in Labrador, 1919.