The Great Potato Awakening

by Lauren Kessler

I grew up in the potato fields of Long Island. To be more precise: I grew up in a tract house in one of those developments that, street by street, gobbled up more than 80 percent of 70,000 acres of Long Island potato fields during the last half of the twentieth century. The mighty potato had been king of Long Island farming from the 1910s, when Polish and Irish farmers came out from New York City to grow them, until the 1960s, when people like my parents flocked to the newly created suburbs carved out of that agricultural land. 

Our cookie-cutter housing development–two-blocks long, surrounded on three sides by sandy-soil farmland yet to be sold off–was called “Associated Terrace.” For the record, there was no association, and there were no terraces. My mother dubbed it “Sheetrock Shambles, Potato Fields, USA,” and spent the next twenty years digging volunteer tubers out of our backyard garden. She was a conscientious small-time grower with a penchant for root vegetables. During those years that she grew beets, carrots, radishes, onions, and garlic in our backyard plot; she also pitchforked up—and cursed–the pounds of unwanted Russets taking up space and absorbing nutrients from the soil.

Maybe this is why I grew up with a deep lack of respect for the potato. 

There were, of course, other reasons: In the grocery store, potatoes came in huge lumpy sacks, the antithesis of the jewel-like displays of the vegetables that, even as a child, I loved: the bright boxy peppers, the crimson and scarlet tomatoes, the curly-leafed lettuces, the graceful, glossy eggplants. These were vegetables you could admire. In our garden these were the vegetables—unlike those random Russets—that you had to actually care for, pinch back, thin, weed-around, water. These were the vegetables my mother grew on purpose. The potato, on the other hand, was a weed, a pest. 

Out in the garden, in late summer, I could pluck a sun-warmed cherry tomato from the vine and pop it in my mouth. I could munch on whole cucumbers, tender green beans, little Nantes carrots that poked their orange heads above the soil. I did not give a thought to the potatoes that lurked below until my mother, frowning, muttering, carried in yet another basket heaped with them. That night, like so many nights, a baked Russet appeared on the dinner plate. Was a fresh-from-the-soil potato more toothsome than a store-bought, long-warehoused one? Not to my young palette. Then, in fifth grade, I learned about the Great Famine, the misery of which just reinforced my staunchly held anti-potato attitude. How could I ever embrace a vegetable that was responsible for the starvation of more than a million people?

Fast-forward four decades to the dramatic turning point in this saga of the spud.

It begins with marauding deer and voracious nutria. One or the other, or both, destroyed, overnight, an entire row of trellised Kentucky Wonders. It was too late in the spring to start something else, and too early to plant for a fall crop. Looking for ideas, and slightly desperate, my husband went to our local garden store. There, behind a carousel of seed packets, was an almost empty bin with a few wizened, little brown knobs, the last of the seed potatoes, huddling at the bottom. The store was giving them away. 

He planted them. I forgot about them.

Come fall, he pitchforked up more than a hundred of these two-to-three-inch, gnarled things that looked like arthritic knuckles. I was ready to toss them in the compost. My husband, less of a potato misanthrope than I, roasted them with olive oil and garlic. Although it is a well-established (and inarguable) fact that just about anything roasted with garlic and olive oil is delicious, these ugly nubby things were transcendently good. Creamy, buttery, nutty. Yes, toothsome. Thus began my Great Potato Awakening. 

How did I not know that the Inca worshipped the potato? That 3,800 varieties grow in Peru? That, in addition to the varieties now available in groceries—but not when I was a child—the Yukon golds, the purple majesties and Red Pontiacs—that the backyard farmer can grow Austrian Crescents, German Butterballs, French Fingerlings, Magic Mollies, Cranberry Reds, Adirondack Blues and, depending on soil and geography, close to 200 other varieties. The names alone could set you dreaming.

And, once in the starchy embrace of the spud, one could dream about side dishes so much more exciting than the baked Russet of my childhood. There were Latkes and samosas, gnocchi and blitva, croquettes and tots. There were Hassleback potatoes invented in a Swedish restaurant. Heart-attack-on-a-plate Potatoes Romanoff, “funeral potatoes,” reputed to be a Mormon soul food. And how about that simmering tension between Peru, Wales and France about who exactly invented potato leek soup? There was the stumbled-upon factoid that potatoes were the first vegetable to be grown in space. There was the comforting fact that, although potatoes have long since ceased to be an important crop on Long Island, my adopted home state of Oregon ranks as the number four producer of potatoes in the U.S. (Idaho, of course, is first.)

The wide world of the potato opened up to me. I learned that the potato is the world’s fourth largest food crop (after rice, wheat, and corn) and the second most consumed food in the U.S. (after milk products). And yes, a lot of that is in the form of French fries—a nutritional abomination we owe to Thomas Jefferson, who introduced them to this country when he served them in White House. My appreciation for the not-so-lowly spud grew when I learned of its extraordinary per acre yield: 32,800 pounds per acre. (Rice yields 7,600 pounds an acre; corn, 9,600 pounds). 

Piggybacking on this mid-life love affair with the tuber, my husband and I made a 200-mile detour on a cross-country camping trip to visit the Idaho Potato Museum, a former railroad depot converted into 5,500 square feet of everything you didn’t need to know (but are now fascinated by) about the potato. There are three floor-to-ceiling display cabinets featuring potato peelers. There is the world’s largest collection of potato mashers. There is a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Marilyn Monroe dressed in a potato sack (and, yes, it looks good on her). At the café, you can order a dish of potato ice cream (just because you can doesn’t mean you should) with a potato cupcake on the side. A broadly smiling local volunteer hands you a big box of dehydrated hash-brown Idaho potatoes when you leave. They are, she says—and the box proclaims: “Taters for Out-of-Staters.” 

That spring, under the spell of the spud, I devoted an entire twenty-foot row in our garden to the vegetable I never dreamed I’d grow on purpose. I planted Red Norlands, Yellow Finns, Blue Cristies, and Kennebecs.

In deference to my mother, and in not-so-fond memory of Sheetrock Shambles, Potato Fields, USA, I planted not a single Russet.

photo credit: Jan Antonin Kolar, Unsplash