Monday, September 1, 2003

He makes his pitch for potatoes cooked in tar

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dave Hackman of Green Twp. shows off his specialty, which was cooked in bubbling pitch during a family cookout at their home. The potato takes about 25 minutes to cook in his homemade cooker, and when broken apart is very soft and tasty.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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While some cherish family picnic recipes for fried chicken, 7-Layer Salad and lemon chess pie, Dave Hackman's special dish calls for only two ingredients: Idaho potatoes and bubbling, black tar - the same smelly, petroleum-based stuff they use to patch roofs and potholes.

About 25 friends and family members were coming over for dinner on a recent summer Sunday afternoon, and Hackman is making his almost-famous "pitch potatoes."

He leans over his cooker, a sticky-looking, coal-colored square box squatting over a gas burner, positioned between the shrubbery outside his Green Township home.

"It's time," he announces.

His wife, Mary Lou, dons two tar-stained oven mitts, grabs a paper napkin and takes her stance. With an oil-coated ladle, Hackman carefully dips out a potato, which now looks like a shiny black rock, from the cauldron. He hands the steaming spud to his wife, who quickly swaddles it in a napkin and stuffs it into an insulated cooler.

Do not try this at home.

The couple rescues five more potatoes from the pot before Hackman grabs six scrubbed tubers from his deck railing.

"The (potatoes) need to weigh about three quarters of a pound," says Hackman, huffing in the heat, wearing a white polo shirt just begging for errant specks of tar. He slips the potatoes into the pitch. And although there appears to be plenty of room in the cooker for more potatoes, Hackman knows the limit is six.

"More than six, and the tar might boil over," he says.

No one wants that.

Using a wooden rod, Hackman deftly clamps one lid on the tar cooker, then another. He sets a timer for 25 minutes and heads to the deck for a cold drink.

How it all began

Dave and Mary Lou Hackman of Green Twp. scoop out a fully cooked and tar-covered "pitch potato."
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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While his guests eat salsa and cheesy Skyline dip, Hackman recounts the origin of pitch potatoes as if it's legend. His father, Arnold, was a brew master at Hudepohl-Schoenling back when they sealed wooden beer barrels with tar. One day, a stray potato fell into a vat of bubbling tar - or maybe someone dropped it in to see what would happen.

After a while, the potato bobbed to the surface. They retrieved it, then incredibly, someone mustered the courage to taste the pitch potato. So perhaps because of the novelty or bravado involved, cooking potatoes in tar became a Hackman family tradition.

"Ever since I was 10 years old, in 1947, my father made pitch potatoes," the retired school bus driver says. "Steak, corn-on-the-cob and pitch potatoes."

In the 1975 edition of Joy of Cooking, there is a similar recipe for cooking potatoes in resin, a light-yellow turpentine by-product. Next to Hackman's tar, resin would be the most pristine extra-virgin olive oil imaginable. Resin is for sissies.

Since the passing of his father, Hackman is probably the only man in the world who cooks potatoes in tar. And they aren't exactly lining up to wrest away that title.

Hackman's two sons and two daughters grew up eating pitch potatoes, like some enjoy sauerkraut on New Year's Day. Now, they roll their eyes when their father's peculiar dish comes up.

It's known as 'the bomb'

David, the older son, calls the pitch cooker "the bomb" because of a mishap of near biblical proportions more than 15 years ago. That day, when his father fished a potato out of the tar, it burst into flame, setting a nearby magnolia tree on fire.

Since then, Hackman has figured out how to keep the tar below its flash point (tar experts says this is below 525 degrees), which prevents the potatoes from combusting.

"There's really nothing to it," Hackman says. "As long as the tar doesn't get too hot and the potatoes don't stay in too long."

Other than hooking up the propane burner, there does appear to be little labor required. Hackman hasn't even changed the pitch, which hardens like a hunk of coal when it cools, for nearly 20 years. That's the thing about cooking food in tar: You don't really worry if it's clean tar.

When the timer beeps again, Hackman scurries over to the pot and yells to his reluctant wife to receive his hot handoffs. In the back yard, the rest of the clan is engaged in a fierce cornhole tournament. Others cower under the second story deck away from the afternoon sun, whirring icy mango margaritas in blenders.

The scant breeze smells of delicious grilling beef mingled with acrid tar. It's almost dinner time.

Time to eat

At 5:30 p.m. the call goes out and the cornhole bags fall silent. Up on the deck, a buffet line quickly forms. Hackman stands up front, his potato-stuffed cooler at his feet.

When someone orders a potato, he grasps one with both hands, his thumbs positioned at rear and center. Then he proudly squeezes the hot pulp onto a paper plate, leaving the black, sticky napkin and potato skin behind. Most of the grown-ups ask for a potato. Most of the grandchildren aren't sure they're ready to sample this tradition.

"There's nothing black on it," he says, trying to convince a child to eat a pitch potato.

"What do you mean you don't want a potato?" his coaxing continues. "Jonathan's eating a potato. That just leaves more for me, you know."

The grandchildren who give in look at the their squashed, skinless potato suspiciously, as if it were spinach or something.

The family finally settles to eat Mary Lou's grilled eye of round, fresh corn-on-the cob, broccoli salad and several other foods untouched by tar.

The pitch potatoes are delicious - fluffy and flaky, like baked potatoes tasted before people began cooking them in the microwave. The most remarkable thing is they don't taste the least bit like tar.

After dinner, when someone's ready to leave, Hackman opens his cooler where a couple of dozen warm potatoes are nestled.

"You want to take a couple home?" he asks eagerly.

Another tenet of the Hackman pitch potato tradition: Always cook a few extra, and always share.



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