The Comfort Food Diaries: All I Want Are Some Potato Skins

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

We are at a bar somewhere near our office north of Times Square, and all I want are some potato skins, but all they have on the menu are mozzarella sticks and chicken wings and nachos, which are terrible if you ask me, at least compared to potato skins. Potato skins have everything you could ever hope for in a bar food—the crunch of the skin, the pull of the cheddar, the stink of the green onion, the chew of the bacon bits. A plate of potato skins and a pint of cold lager is the best pairing American cuisine has to offer. I mean that. I really do.

The bar is one of those fake Irish pubs that are ubiquitous in Midtown Manhattan. Let's call it Magnus O'Malley O'Sullivan's. It's the kind of place that smells of stale beer, cleaning products, and lacquer. It has no history. It has no lore. There are no regulars. The bartender can't pour a Guinness to save his life. In one of the basement bathrooms, a tourist from Indiana is likely throwing up after one too many Long Island Iced Teas. As a Korn song plays from an iPod, we get two orders of wings and two orders of mozzarella sticks. I can't keep my eyes off the plasma TVs.

We gather here once or twice a week to complain about our jobs. We work at a home improvement magazine, where I serve as an associate editor. I dislike my boss immensely, and he dislikes me just the same. It's the middle of the recession, and we keep having layoffs, but for some reason he never fires me. After each purge, we gather at this bar with our fallen ex-colleagues, and at some point one of them inevitably looks at me and says something like, "I can't believe you made it through." As I said, I dislike my boss immensely, and he dislikes me. Everyone knows he does.

I am in my late thirties, and I am anxious all the time. I take pills for it, but they don't work. I'm convinced I am dying of several diseases, because I have been a hypochondriac ever since I was a freshman in college and mistook two salivary glands under my tongue for cancerous tumors, and I didn't go to the doctor because I was terrified he would tell me I wasn't mistaken at all. I stand outside my office each day, chain-smoking cigarettes and worrying about my health. Creditors keep calling me because I'm tens of thousands of dollars in debt; I can't pay the rent on my Brooklyn apartment anymore. My girlfriend moved out. After work, all I want is a cold lager and some potato skins, because I am convinced they will fix everything. No, they won't pay the rent, but they have their own special powers.

Potato skins remind me that I don't need New York. That I'd be perfectly happy back home among the commercial strips and fast-food joints of suburban Cincinnati, where I grew up. I'd be fine hanging out with my old friends each night in the bar at Uno's or Applebee's or Chili's, drinking Michelob Amber Bocks. Those places would all have potato skins, and they would be good. In Uno's case, they would be pizza skins, which are even better.

When the wings and mozzarella sticks arrive at our table, everyone digs into them, saying how good they are, even though they're not good at all. I bite into a mozzarella stick and taste nothing but the marinara sauce in which it's dipped. Mozzarella sticks are bullshit.

A memory: My mother and I are sitting at a booth at the T.G.I Friday's on Beechmont Avenue in Cincinnati. It's 1990, and I'm home from Ohio State for the weekend, and she's taken me to the mall to buy a new clock radio, some oxford shirts, a winter coat, and a pair of Florsheim shoes. After squeezing the shopping bags from Elder-Beerman, Lazarus, and Radio Shack into our booth, we settle in and open our oversize glossy menus, and it's like I've won the lottery. For the past few months in Columbus, I've been surviving on bad pizza and the Wendy's dollar menu. But Mom is paying now. I can order whatever I want. I get six loaded potato skins, a chef's salad with blue cheese dressing, a bacon cheeseburger, and a Sam Adams on the side. I am as comfortable as I will ever be. The hypochondria washes away, and I stop probing those little glands in my mouth with the tip of my tongue. I ask Mom if she wants one of my skins and I am relieved when she says no.

Later that year in Columbus, I find out there's a bar and grill down the street from my house that serves potato skins, and I start going there with my girlfriend as much as I can. I start doing a lot of things that year. I start doing a lot of drugs. I start getting high every day. I start skipping lectures to go on acid trips instead. This is par for the course for a lot of college students. They survive these things unharmed. But I am already a nervous kid. I don't have the temperament for such mind alterations. My general state of being becomes one of anxiety and detachment, and it never, ever goes away. I develop OCD. I start pressing my palms on the corners of every square table or banister or church pew I find, because I have to. I've lost hold of myself. But the potato skins at that bar; somehow they always seem to tether me to some vague sense of security.

Another memory: When I was a teenager, my father and I made a point of watching St. Elsewhere together each Wednesday night. It was after my parents' divorce, and we were living in a rented two-story town house. After years of tumult, things had finally started to settle down, and I was happy just to spend time with him. We had two floral-patterned love seats that used to be part of a formal living room set, but since Mom got full custody of the family room sofa, they now served as our primary seating. There were rips in the arms, and one of the legs had snapped off. We had each claimed one of our own, mine on the right side of the living room, his on the left. Before the show came on at 10 p.m., I would go into the cupboard to fetch a bag of Tato Skins, a concave chip that looked sort of like a tongue and was supposed to taste just like potato skins, and did. Then I would go into the refrigerator to retrieve a tin of Frito-Lay cheddar cheese dip and bring it into the living room, where Dad and I would split the entire bag, watching a medical drama that, in the series finale, was revealed to be little more than a young boy's dream.

I leave the fake Irish pub and walk by a T.G.I Friday's on 46th Street. It's about 10 p.m., and the place is filled with tourists. I stand outside watching throngs of people from Ohio and Michigan and everywhere else but New York pass me by. I admire the fact that sometime, in the next day or two, they'll all pack their bags in their Marriott hotel rooms and fly back to places that are so much more familiar to me than this one is.

There's a woman I have a crush on, and I fumble with my cellphone, scrolling for her number. I want to see if she'll meet me here. I want to call her and say: "Hey, wanna meet me at Fridays for some potato skins?" But then I realize how affected this will sound. She'll think I'm asking her to eat potato skins at Friday's because it's ironic, but it's not ironic at all. It's sacred.

I put my phone back into my pocket and totter toward the subway. This isn't the time for potato skins, I think to myself. But will there ever be a time again? Maybe potato skins are best left alone as a childhood memory. Yes, they are my favorite comfort food, but if I eat them, they'll just remind me how uncomfortable I am. In my city. In my middle age. In my life.

A final memory: I am sitting at a barstool next to my father at a neighborhood pub. It's the early 1980s, and I am around 12 years old. My father is ordering endless rounds of Chivas Regal as I scan the pub's menu, looking for something to eat. At this point, I am unaware that his drinking will undo our family; that there are small salivary glands beneath my tongue; that the girlfriend I will eat with at that bar and grill in Columbus will cheat on me with the drummer of a local cover band. I am just here. Completely here. There is something on the menu called potato skins, and I've never had them before. I order six of them, and they taste like they were invented just for me. The crunch of the skin. The pull of the cheddar....From that point on, they're all that I want. Even though I never get them anymore. Even though I haven't tasted one in years.