I was never really a great gardener but I enjoyed the heck out of it! Particularly the connection to the soil. There were little joys all through the season as seeds germinated and emerged from the earth looking for the sun. One of the events I always looked forward to was midsummer when I could sneak into the hill of red potatoes, pull out a handful, wash ‘em, steam ‘em, butter ‘em, and eat ‘em. Simple pleasures, yum!
The potato has an amazing history that is ever so slightly obscured by the sands of time. It took the potato two continents, two centuries, and two separate trips across the Atlantic to reach our shores. It then took some resourceful chefs and industrious farmers to make the potato the ubiquitous part of our culture that it is today. Meat and potatoes, now there’s a mouthful!
I need to back up a couple of centuries to the Spanish conquistadors. They decimated the Inca Empire with guns and germs and returned with plundered gold. They also returned with native curiosities, one of which was a strange edible tuber that fed the “heathen” population. It was the beginning of a phenomenon that would be dubbed the “Colombian Exchange” where the New World and the Old World exchanged products and plants. The world would never be the same.
The potato was greeted with fascinated skepticism in Europe and was very slow to catch on. Some Christians would not it eat because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. It was in the nightshade family so it was the food of the devil. It grew underground. It had no flavor or aroma. But catch on it did. It grew like a weed in harsh climates and poor soil. Suddenly an acre of marginal land would support most of a family’s nutritional needs.
After centuries of endemic famine, Europe was able to feed its people and the population doubled. The potato would end scurvy and help feed the armies that would dominate much of the world. It was almost too good to be true, and in the end it was. In a grand unwitting experiment in “monoculture,” the European continent was populated with clones. The potato is not grown by seed, but by cuttings taken from the original potato called grafts. Millions of acres of European potatoes were genetically identical. So when the blight hit in 1845, also courtesy of the Colombian Exchange, it hit hard, wiping out 80 percent of Europe’s potato crop in three years. Millions died of starvation; millions more emigrated, changing the face of both Europe and America. It bought to our shores diverse cultures that continue to influence us to this day. It also brought potato culture to North America.
So how did the amazing diversity of 4000 varieties of Colombian potatoes get winnowed down to a mere handful? What does this say about us as a food culture and what does this say about the political nature of our food economy?
OK, potato trivia time!
- The Potato was introduced to North America as a gift to the Gov. of the Virginia Colonies in the 1600s, and again when Thomas Jefferson came back from France in 1790.
- The first permanent patch was not established until Irish immigrants planted a patch in Derry, NH, around 1817.
- The French fry, or Pomme Frites, was invented when Louis XVI complained his potatoes were cold and his chef had to reheat his potatoes in a hurry, thrusting them into hot oil.
- Another “happy accident” occurred in 1853, when Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his potatoes were not cut thin enough. The chef cut them paper thin, flash fried them, and the potato chip was born.
- The potato is currently the third biggest cash crop in the world.
- During the Klondike gold rush in Alaska in 1898, nutritious food was so scarce the potato was worth its weight in gold, which later inspired the variety Yukon Gold.
- The Peruvians originally domesticated the wild potato, which was mildly toxic, and served it with an edible clay powder that kept the body from absorbing the toxin (the clay powder is sold in Peru to this day!).
- The Peruvians would develop more than 4000 varieties of the plant to survive in the many and varied climates of the Andes, some of the harshest in the world. It also was a hedge against pests and weather that could wipe out a variety in a heartbeat.
So what did we learn from the Great European Potato Blight? Plenty and little. Agriculture is a constant battle with nature, and if I was a betting person, my money is on nature.
One of the next gifts from the Colombian Exchange was “guano,” or high nitrogen fertilizer, which fueled the chemical fertilizer industry. The Colombian Exchange then sponsored the next blight, the Mexican potato borer, which in turn begat the first pesticide, which begat DDT, which begat GMOs. It was the beginning of the global economy, which brings us to right here, today.
What can we do? You are what you eat, so watch what you eat. Easier said than done, but easier in the Upper Valley than in many places.
Be interested in where your food was grown and how it was grown. I belong to the first generation of Americans subjected to chemicals and additives with dubious pedigrees and unknown side effects. We accepted it with a smile and a thank you (“better Living through chemistry”).
The Co-op Food Stores sells reliable local food, grown responsibly, some grown organically. We salute the following local farms that work hard to supply us with really great potatoes:
Potatoes spend their life in the soil and will reflect the soil they are grown in. So the next time you shop at your favorite Co-op location, visit the Prepared Foods Department, where our talented chefs do all of the work! You can try the roasted red pots, or the perennial favorite potato salad, and check out what the chefs are cooking up for dinner! But do not forget to spend quality time in our amazing Produce Department and pick up a bunch of garlic and a bag of your favorite locally grown potatoes and make one of these recipes. Eat well and have fun!
Oven Fried Potatoes
Here is an easy home-grown version of the fast-food favorite, much lower in fat and every bit as fun. Ten minutes of prep time, 25 minutes in the oven.
2 lbs. of your favorite potato, washed and sliced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
3 to 4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Tbs. vegetable or olive oil
Preheat oven to 400ºF.
Slice thin for crispier fries or wedges for more potato flavor. Toss all of the ingredients in a large bowl until coated. Arrange in a single layer on a baking pan.
Cook approximately 25 minutes, until lightly browned.
Ok, these are the basics, if you like you can:
Line the pan with aluminum foil for ease of cleanup.
Add flavors like chili powder, grated parmesan cheese, basil, thyme, or whatever else you like.
For a lower-fat alternative, omit the oil and use an oil spray on the pan first and again after you season your potatoes. Turn once halfway through cooking for more uniform browning or get a crispier bottom by not turning.
Twice Baked Potatoes
You can make this for your guests the next time you want to be a little fancy.
1 hr 50 min
4 uniform large russet potatoes
1/2 lb. bacon
1 cup sour cream
4 Tbs. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 bunch scallions (or chives in season)
Preheat oven to 350ºF.
Pierce potatoes 3 to 4 times with a fork, place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake for one hour.
While potatoes are cooking, cook the bacon until crispy, drain on a paper towel, then chop well and set aside. Finely slice scallions; save a little for garnish.
After potatoes are cooked, slice in half lengthwise and carefully scoop the flesh into a mixing bowl, setting the skins aside.
Mash the warm potatoes together with the other ingredients; it’s ok if it is a little lumpy. Scoop back into potato skins, sprinkle lightly with paprika, and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes.
Garnish with remaining scallions and serve!
Again, add your favorite ingredients! Very easy to keep vegetarian. Steam, chop, and add broccoli and cheddar cheese for an easy variation, or add some delicious leftovers you may have!
Perfect Mashed Potatoes
I will pass along a tip I received a long time ago from a chef who had made thousands of pounds of “Perfect Mashed Potatoes” at Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant. After you have cooked and drained your potatoes, mash them before you add any of the liquids. This will get all of the lumps out! Then add your milk and butter and you will have creamy, smooth “Perfect Mashed Potatoes!”
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