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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Potatoes, Peas, Popcorn, and Pancakes (but not all at once)

August 9, 2023

A few weeks ago, I wrote that 2023 will go down as the summer of watermelon. I mentioned how I like to put salt on watermelon. I put salt on a lot of atypical things. Many times, it’s on sweet things. There have been a lot of sweet things in my life lately as we just opened a bakery last week. One of the daily offerings is a pecan sticky bun. Most know that delicious pastry as brioche dough, wrapped in cinnamon, and cooked in a muffin tin with caramel and pecans in the bottom of the tin. Once removed from the oven it is flipped and the caramel topping drips down the sides of the sweet roll along with a few of the pecans. This particular pastry needs no further adornment. But I like the pairing of salty and sweet. I sprinkle a little bit of salt as I believe it enhances the flavor substantially.

I grew up eating a grocery store product from the refrigerator case called Caramel Danish Sweet Rolls. The Pillsbury company made these things, and they came in a whop-them-on-the-counter container with a crumbly mix of brown sugar and pecans tucked inside. After you whopped the sweet rolls on the counter you spread the bottom of a cake pan or muffin tins with butter, crumbled the sugar and pecans on top of the butter in the muffin tins, and then placed the sweet rolls on top of that mixture. After baking, it required the same practice we do at the bakery— flipping the pan over and watching all the gooey caramel drip down the sides. As a kid I added more butter and a little bit of salt to those store-bought sweet rolls. It’s obviously practices such as those that explain my current girth, but that’s a story for another day.

There are several odd combinations of foodstuffs that I like. I dip Pringles potato chips into applesauce. That freaks a lot of people out because applesauce was never meant as a dip for chips. But don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It’s good. I know Pringles aren’t legit potato chips so save the e-mails. But in this application, they are the best chip for the job.

I also sprinkle a little bit of salt on my buttered pancakes. Again, it enhances the flavor substantially.

At the movie theater I like to take a couple of kernels of popcorn and add a Milk Dud in my mouth at the same time. That is one of the ultimate salty and sweet combinations. Those two items pair perfectly. Probably the longest running odd pairing in my life are mashed potatoes and English peas. There’s nothing strange about those two very common vegetable side dishes when they are next to each other on a plate. But I make a nest out of the mashed potatoes and place my English peas in the center.

My father died when I was very young, and I don’t remember much about him. But I know that he ate his mashed potatoes and English peas that way. His mother, my grandmother, prepared them for him like that. It must have been something I saw him do when I was a very small child. The problem these days is that no one in my family likes English peas. If I’m going to have that combination— in which I love so dearly— I’m going to be the only one in my family who eats it. My wife, daughter, and son are all devout mashed potato eaters, but they don’t want to have anything to do with English peas.

This past spring peas were plentiful in Tuscany. I was working over there and 2023 was a banner year for peas in the region. A favorite Tuscan restaurant is owned by my friend Paulo, who always serves mashed potatoes for lunch. It’s not common food one typically finds over there but he has them almost every day to be served alongside his peposo. This year he also had a surplus of peas. Fresh peas. On my days off, my wife and I would go to lunch and my typical order of a simple pasta and calamari changed to nothing more than mashed potatoes and English peas. No protein. No pasta. No other side item. No dessert. Just potatoes and peas.

A new reader to this column would scoff at the fact that someone is over in Italy and wasting a meal on potatoes and peas. Actually, several meal periods over the course of the spring. But I spend around 90 days a year working over there and eat Italian food almost exclusively. I’m fine with deviating from the pasta thing occasionally.

I’m not one of these guys who puts ketchup on his eggs or mayonnaise on my bananas. But I do put ketchup butter beans. It’s another thing I’ve done since I was a kid. I’m sure someone else in my family started it and I followed. I think I’ll blame my brother for that one.

Speaking of my brother, he is a fanatic about eating peanut butter crackers with gumbo. I don’t think I have ever seen him eat gumbo without having several peanut butter crackers on the side. Our mother made great gumbo, but I don’t think he would eat it unless there were some saltines and a jar of Jif nearby.

He and I drank milk at every meal. When I say, “every meal,” I’m not saying we did it occasionally. We literally drank milk at every meal. It didn’t matter if we were eating pizza, meatloaf, or steak. We drank milk. He and I went through a gallon a day. A half-gallon at breakfast and a half-gallon at supper. If school was out for the summer, we went through a half-gallon at lunch as well. I didn’t drink my first glass of iced tea until I was 18 years old.

Food is subjective. Everyone has specific likes and dislikes. What appeals to one might not appeal to another. I am of the mind that I want people to be happy. If putting salt on your sweet roll makes you happy, go for it. Who am I to judge.

You be you, especially at the dinner table.



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