This time of year, I can’t stop sleeping. I seem to have been infected by a seasonal parasite, a sleep tapeworm or zombie virus that awakens at dark and renders me unconscious so it can wreak its insidious takeover of my person while I’m zonked out. Every day, I try not to give in, but I’m unable to resist. I start to nod off when the sun goes down, in mid-afternoon, no matter how much sleep I’ve had the night before (sometimes, these days, 10 hours). I have no choice but to stop what I’m doing, get into bed, and conk out, sometimes for an hour, sometimes two. It doesn’t matter what deadline is looming before me or how long my to-do list is. The parasite doesn’t care about my life at all beyond its wish to take it over.
When I return gradually to wakefulness from my near-comatose, dream-filled nap, at 5:00 or thereabouts, it’s pitch-dark night already, and I’ve accomplished exactly nothing since I fell asleep. I shake myself awake, stagger back to my desk, sit down and try to pick up where I left off, to reconstruct whatever it was I was doing before I blacked out. As I start typing again, my brain slowly coming back up to speed, I can feel the parasite curling into its lair somewhere in my skull, sated for now with whatever part of my brain it feeds on while I’m out.
Eventually, it’s time to cook dinner. Down in the kitchen, I foggily survey the contents of the fridge and cupboards. There are polenta, pine nuts, Savoy cabbage, a package of chicken breasts, red peppers, leeks… I yawn and blink, lose my train of thought. I know I’ll be asleep again by 10:00, but it feels so far away.
“What do you feel like eating?” I ask Brendan, who blinks at me from his computer, where he’s been fighting his own sleep parasite all afternoon, working away.
“I’ll cook,” he says. “What do you want?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “What would you make?”
“I don’t know,” says Brendan, clearly in the same mood I’m in. “What do you feel like?”
The truth is that there’s really nothing I actively feel like eating these days. I can’t even think about cooking or eating anything enterprising or challenging or surprising or difficult. My stomach wants carbohydrates. My palate craves nursery food. My soul wants warmth and quiet.
“How about baked potatoes?” I say.
“Perfect,” says Brendan.
During sleep season, there is nothing, nothing at all, like a baked potato for dinner, or lunch, or even, in theory anyway, breakfast. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make, for one thing: wash a potato, prick it, cover it in oil and salt if you prefer, or not, and stick it into a hot toaster oven for 50 minutes or so till the skin is crackling and the inside is soft. You can put anything you like on top: sour cream and chopped chives, or a fried or scrambled or poached egg with steamed chopped spinach if you want something green, or nothing at all but a little butter, salt, and pepper. A baked potato is starchy and hearty but not too big. It’s nourishing and comforting, but not filling or heavy. And it’s cheap.
Russets are traditionally the best for baking, but I’m partial to Yukon Golds. Their skin doesn’t give chewily between the teeth like russets’, but their buttery-yellow insides taste richly of the essence of potato and are denser, whereas russets’ innards are white, fluffy, blander, less flavorful. And a Yukon Gold can stand up to baking; its skin is thinner, but it crackles.
The other day, I reached into the cheese case at the supermarket and yanked out a small brick of bacon cheddar and put it into the basket without even thinking about it. Its ingredients were unfathomably decadent: the usual full-fat cheese stuff, plus bacon and hickory smoke. I had never bought or eaten or even really noticed its existence before, but I neither resisted nor questioned the sudden urge to possess it.
At home, near lunchtime, without consulting Brendan, I stuck two scrubbed, pricked Yukon Gold potatoes into the toaster oven. While they baked, I sautéed a large minced yellow onion in olive oil and plenty of Worcestershire sauce, slowly, on low heat, so the onion softened and started to brown and caramelize but didn’t burn.
When the potatoes were done, I cut them in half, slid them onto aluminum foil, and smothered them in grated bacon cheddar. I stuck them back in to broil until the cheese was melted and bubbling and the whole kitchen was fragrant with fake smoke flavor along with the smell of browned onions.
Then I pulled them out and covered them in the onions and served them with a small bowl of kosher salt and the pepper grinder. We sat at the table and ate our lunch without speaking. The sun was already beginning to set. I could feel the zombie virus awakening in my head, turning sinuously with sinister velvet lullabye rhythms. The baked potato felt like an amulet, an antidote that would protect me while I slept.