Why Hello There! Welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes, the site that can’t decide whether it has an s on the end or not, because I’m bad at consistent branding. I’m your author, and inept brand executive, Jon O’Guin. Today, we’re going to talk about Scalloped Potatoes, convergent evolution, and some third thing, because I at least know that much about rhythmic structure.
Come Together, Right Now, Over Meat
So, convergent evolution, what is it? Well, it’s the concept that different creatures taking different evolutionary paths can come to the same answer. Wings, for instance, are found among Mammals, Birds, Insects, and, once upon a time, Reptiles.
Step 1: Piss off extreme religious types by discussing Evolution: Check.
Step 2: Piss off uptight Science Type by calling Dinosaurs "reptiles": Check
Step 3: ???
Step 4: Profit.
Of course, I’m not particularly interested in the direct biological form of convergent evolution, but rather its cultural and intellectual form. Sometimes, it seems, an idea is just ready to be born: like in “multiple discovery”, where several different people can all discover the same thing at roughly the same time, despite never interacting with each other. There are 3 different people who invented the Jet engine, in three different countries, within a span of 2 years. While we all think of Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the Telephone (and I’m sure you all think of him as often as I), it’s worth noting that, the exact day he filed his patent, 1,000 miles away, a man named Elisha Gray was filing an almost identical design. Because of the exact timing, and some…interesting movements and design coincidences shortly afterward, some wonder if Bell deserves the title at all, but let’s skip past that.
Another region this can be seen in is folklore: there are a lot of weirdly specific overlaps. For instance, there are a LOT of stories about various men finding beautiful women who are secretly (Non-human thing), stealing an article of their clothing, and marrying them. As in “written about in 8th century Japan, 13th Century Norway, and told in centuries old stories by Native Americans.” Now, we could interpret this as mankind’s desire to sleep with swan or seal people, and I’ll be honest, there’s probably some merit to that.
Boy meets Girl, Girl is Seal, Guy steals her seal skin to make her marry him, they have web-fingered kids. Tale as old as Time.
But it’s likely not the ONLY thing. For one thing, that theory doesn’t really address why the stories often include stealing the thing’s clothing, and I like my bestiality theories unassailable. Also, I don’t generally like to have bestiality theories. Today’s a weird day. But people have discussed this in terms of “morphology”, meaning the stories have specific shapes and component because they’re easy to relate complex meanings to. So, the stealing of clothing, and its hiding, is an easy sign of dominance by resource-control: to tame the magic thing, you need to have control of what gives it magic. You wanna beat a wizard? Steal his magic wand; that kind of thinking. It serves, in a weird way, as an informal teaching tool for basic problem solving, telling children “Hey, if something is too powerful/hard for you, figure out what’s making it so powerful, and take it away.” And it does so through hot seal wives, because kids love seals, so they’ll pay attention.
To be fair, Seals are fucking adorable, so who doesn't like them?
And this sort of thing happens in the food world all the time. Nigiri Sushi was developed as a way for busy Japanese people to eat their delicious fresh fish on the go, with their hands, and was popularized at roughly the same time the Sandwich was being introduced to Europe. The indigenous peoples of Mexico were making tortillas centuries ago, just as the people of the middle east were making Pita.
All of this recently reached an apex, a tipping point of millennia of food development, from that most majestic and world changing of foods: Potatoes.
Like Oil and Water
So, what actually happened was a few weeks ago, my mother and I were chatting in a car ride about how my mother has a…problem. Let’s call it an ‘issue’, instead, since that makes it seem less important by associating it with Magazines, the Horse-drawn carriage of our generation.
This issue was simple: she had recently had a discussion with my dad, and it had truly dawned on her how little her taste buds and his aligned. Not in the sense of not liking the same things, exactly, but in their relative sense of adventure. I’ve written several times before of my own issues with this. My father is not a man who likes to branch out or vary his diet. I can quote his orders at some restaurants verbatim, and am willing to bet my brother can do the same. I say “willing to bet” because I tried to prove it just now, but it’s currently 1 AM and he’s not answering my texts.
Lame "people" needing to "sleep" so they "finish their work before 1:30 AM"
But yes, my mother was commenting that it was almost surreal to realize, looking at her husband of 30 some-odd years, how different their tastes are. My dad’s sense of culinary satiation, as I’ve noted, could be fulfilled by about…20-30 plates. Things like “Shake-and-Bake Pork Chops with mashed potatoes, stove-top stuffing, and a can of green beans” and “Carne Asada with refried beans, Mexican Rice, and a cheese enchilada”. You may note those are mildly specific qualities, and that’s one point where you can at least see some semblance: my father is capable of incredibly precise culinary opinions. He will know of the 15 local Mexican restaurants which has the carne asada he likes. He likes his McDonald’s fries fresh from the fryer, hot as a fire.
This conversation somehow stumbled onto the idea of Scalloped potatoes, and how his mother made them differently from my mother’s mother. I asked for specifics. And the answer I got hit my brain like lightning. Unfortunately, like lightning, it did some lasting damage. I can’t remember the specific answers, but I know what I immediately said. “Oh, so they’re both just making a Mornay sauce and sliced potatoes, and combining them differently” To which my mother asked “What’s a ‘Moray’ sauce” Because while she has a lot of cooking experience, she doesn’t have my encyclopedic knowledge of formal terminology, and she likes to mock my knowledge thereof in that strangely specific rural American fashion.
"No, I done told you, tweren't no con-fag-u-ration, it was a big ol' damn fire!"
IN any case, this moved me to say “Wait, is that all scalloped potatoes are? Crap, we can do those no problem!”
Which was a good thing, because we had recently bought 3 pounds of premium ham, and had yet to have a reason to use it. This is, I will confess, is a valid complaint my father makes about my mother’s and my methods: Our reach quite often exceeds our grasp. BUT NOT TODAY!
Probably Easy-ER than Pie
We adapted our recipe from the not-at-all suspiciously named food.com, where the recipe consisted of “Make a béchamel, make it a mornay, toss crap in it and bake.” For those who skipped our Mother Sauces post last year: a béchamel is a light roux (a mixture of butter and flour) mixed with milk, and some simple spices (salt and pepper, in this case). Making it a Mornay means “Melt cheese into it.” Which we did with a mixture of 4-State Cheddar, because we were trying to EVEN things out! HAHAA
You must forgive him, it’s almost 2 now. He’s very tired to rely on math puns.
Shut up, Caption Jon. We’re fine. Other than the ‘royal we’ thing being back. Anywho, the recipe certainly needs to be Evened out, because otherwise, it’s quite…ODD. Wait, forgot the set up, so that one's a little wonky. Sorry. Anyway, yeah, everything else that goes in is measured in 1s, 3s, and 5s, so it’s how I remembered it all. 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped green pepper, 3 cups chopped ham, 5 cups sliced potatoes, 1 cup shredded cheddar. We also added a diced jalapeno, to cut some of the richness. And you literally just Dump all this in a bowl, pour the hot cheese sauce on it, toss together, and pour into a baking sheet. Bake that sucker for 90 minutes, and you get some thick, gooey, rich potato mess for meal time.
And while it may not be exotic, or particularly complex, it’s a crowd pleaser. And that’s a great thing to discover all on its own.
NEXT TIME: JON, OVERWORKED FROM TERRIBLE MISTAKES, FINANCIAL STRUGGLES, AND FAMILY EMERGENCIES, REFUSES ALL ASSISTANCE FROM OTHER POSTERS, AND EVEN TRIES TO STEAL ONE’S JOB.
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3 cups milk
3 cups ham, cooked
1 large green pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
5 cups potatoes, pared and sliced
- Melt butter in large sauce pan over low heat; blend in flour, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute. Remove from heat gradually stir in milk. Return to heat; cook until thickened and bubbly.
- Fold in ham, onion, green pepper and cheese. Pour over potatoes in a large bowl. Stir gently then move into a buttered 13X9-inch baking dish; cover with foil.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake for 1 hour. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.