When the Potatoes Stay the Same: Lessons in Change

So much in life changes.  Some changes are welcome and good, but others just plain suck.  Some changes are life altering, while others serve as a momentary nuisance.  There was that time they stopped making my favorite chocolate scented shampoo (waaahhh), and then there was the time my first born was diagnosed with cancer.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes . . . turn and face the strange.

Easter Sunday was an exercise in facing the strange for me.  My family enjoyed a lovely brunch with a couple of other families from my son’s school.  Such good people, such good kiddos.  The restaurant was an old favorite of mine that happened to be close to the hospital where our daughter was treated.

I had avoided the area for months, as the hospital was undergoing demolition.  It’s hard to explain the significance of that, but I knew enough to know it would hurt to see it.  Another huge part of our girl’s life just gone.  Vanished.  Poof.  Next to our home and her dance studio, Chicago’s old Children’s Memorial Hospital was Donna’s home.  She loved it there.  She grew up there.

As my family and I approached the intersection of Lincoln and Fullerton and Halsted and I saw it for the first time, now just a fenced in empty lot, we made a sharp right to get to the restaurant.  My eyes welled up and tears popped out, but it was time to eat, time to be social, time to celebrate Easter.  I took a deep breath and drove on.  Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

Cafe Ba Ba Reeba! is a sprawling tapas joint that is owned by one of those restaurant conglomerates that creates dining experiences. When I went there in my 20s I thought it was exotic and sophisticated.  In my 40s I know it is really more like a Spanish lite experience with delicious food and wine.  And that’s okay.

There are smaller, more authentic tapas restaurants, but this was my first and I am partial to it.  Also, I am about as provincial an eater that exists, so, truth be told, eating there still feels a wee bit exotic and sophisticated to my narrow palate.  It is the first place I drank sangria and shared small plates and tried goat cheese.  Goat cheese!  It’s now a staple in my three year old’s diet, but I was well into my 20s before I tasted it.  Who knew?  Turns out, a lot of folks did.  So good.

Anyway.  I knew when the restaurant was chosen that I would order the “patatas bravas,” described on the menu as, “spicy potatoes with tomato alioli.”  I first ordered these when my college roommate and I, now both single and living our best young adult lives in the big city, would go to Ba Ba Reeba! for after work happy hours.

Patatas bravas, Cafe Ba Ba Reeba!
Patatas bravas, Cafe Ba Ba Reeba!

For under fifteen bucks we could order a plate of these most delicious potatoes that would fill up our bellies and a half carafe of sangria, a full carafe if we were feeling rich or reckless.  All the major food groups were covered — starch, alcohol, fruit, and dairy.  We sat in the front window by the bar, looking fresh and cute in our early 20s version of office chic, and talk about the rest of our lives. There was tremendous comfort in those potatoes and camaraderie.  They were good days.

As the years passed and I started graduate school and met my husband and spent less time with my college roommate (Ch-ch-ch-ch changes . . .), I continued to eat those potatoes, albeit not as frequently.  They were always the same.  Always perfectly cooked.  Always just the right size (I hate too large potatoes).  Always spiced the way I like them, with a bit of heat, but not too much.  Always served with the creamy alioli, that I quickly learned was just a fancy word for mayo with flavor.  Life changed, but the potatoes stayed the same.

With two young boys, my dining in restaurants that don’t qualify as “fast casual” and exist within a 12 minute drive from our front door is fairly limited.  Cafe Ba Ba Reeba! is not especially close to our neighborhood, so it’s an intentional drive.  And, possibly, my husband doesn’t have the same emotional attachment to starch that I do.  That’s why this Easter brunch with friends felt extra special — a built in reason to eat my favorite potatoes with folks I love.

The patatas bravas did not disappoint.  And just like I did in my 20s sitting at the bar, I ate a whole order to myself.  I do now, as I did then, demonstrate the worst of tapas etiquette.  And my friends now, as they did then, forgive me.  There is a tremendous comfort to be found in knowing that those perfect little potatoes exist over two decades of my life.  My whole formative adult years have been made just a little bit better and spicier and creamier because of those particular potatoes.

My life has been challenging and blessed in so many ways.  Ways I never, ever could have anticipated sitting at that bar eating and drinking with my college roommate.  The life I have today is entirely different than the one I imagined for myself.  That doesn’t make me special or unique.  It does make me human and being human can be hard.  And that is why, precisely, the unexpected pleasure of potatoes that are as comforting and delicious in 2017 as they were in 1994 is a gift — a time machine fueled by starch and memories and anticipation and acceptance.

Nothing better.
Nothing better.

Here’s to patatas bravas.  May they never change.

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