ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO …

Potatoes of Infinite Diversity (Used with permission.)
Potatoes of Infinite Diversity (Used with permission.)

One potato, two potato, three potato, four,
five potato, six potato, seven potato more.
Icha bacha, soda cracker,
Icha bacha boo.
Icha bacha, soda cracker, out goes Y-O-U!

Children’s Rhyme

This year the potato finally gets its due. The UN General Assembly named 2008 as the International Year of the Potato, celebrating a vegetable with tremendous diversity. Bolivia counts 1000 different types of potatoes in its larder. Yet, for numerous reasons that diversity diminishes every year.

Potatoes in the Andes (Used with permission.)
Potatoes in the Andes (Used with permission.)

Count how many different kinds of potatoes you see in your grocery store the next time you shop. Potatoes just aren’t “hot” anymore in most Western diets. And as demand for certain foods dies out, so does diversity.

Solanum tuberosum, or the white potato, lived a very checkered life for many of its 8000 years of existence.

At one point in history, hailed as the cure for famine, the kingly potato reigned over the stomachs of millions of people by a royal decree. And then, in other times, people refused to eat potatoes, preferring to starve rather than eat a plant botanically related to the deadly nightshade. In the 1950s and 1960s, children made funny faces with Mr. Potato Head (one of Rhode Island’s native sons) and their mothers cooked Tater Tots and frozen French fries. Columnist Russell Baker summed it all up nicely when he said, ” ‘French fries’ say the menus, but they are not French fries any longer. They are a furry‑textured substance with the taste of plastic wool.”

Mr. Potato Head Modernized (Used with permission.)
Mr. Potato Head Modernized (Used with permission.)

From king’s delight to plastic wool. How did the potato come to this ignoble state? From its origins at 11,000 feet above sea‑level in pre‑Colombian Peru, the potato sailed with Francisco Pizarro to Spain in 1534. The Incas grew literally thousands of different varieties and stored them both fresh and freeze-dried, one of the first instant convenience foods, you might say.

Those early potatoes tasted somewhat differently from our present‑day hybrids and did indeed contain substantial amounts of solanine, a mild toxin, which still increases in potatoes if they are left out in sunlight for too long, as well as chaconine. Fear of poisoning kept many people away from potato eating. In France, only the poor ate potatoes until the famine of 1770. On the urging of the French king, Louis XVI, the Academy of Besançon held a contest in 1773 to identify a food that would sustain France through another famine. And a French military pharmacist and agronomist named Antoine Auguste Parmentier won the prize. He suggested that potatoes would do the trick. Many French potato dishes carry his name, including a cream of potato soup with leeks, fried potatoes with bacon, and a form of hash.  Germany, of course, took to the potato early on, as Parmentier first ate them as a prisoner of war in Germany during the Seven Years’ War.

Freeze-Dried Potatoes in the Andes (Used with permission.)
Freeze-Dried Potatoes in the Andes (Used with permission.)

Ironically, some 70 years later, Ireland suffered one of history’s worst famines because the population depended almost solely on potatoes for sustenance.

Potato Leaves (Used with permission.)
Potato Leaves (Used with permission.)

After Parmentier’s potato promotion program, the potato became an acceptable food throughout the European world and North America. Recipes for potatoes appear in some cookery manuscripts in the American colonies, including this one for “Potatoe Custard very good,” from Jane Randolph her Cookery Book 1743″:

“To a quart of Potatoe Pulp, put a quart of good top of Milk, six eggs 2 spoonfuls Rose Water, half a Nutmeg, sweeten it to your Taste, then bake in good Paste.” (Taken from page 418 of Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty, by Katharine E. Harbury.)

American farmwives used potatoes in bread dough and in cakes, too. And cooks in mining camps fried up a mess of potatoes with bacon, while slaveholders fed potatoes to the people slaving in the cotton fields.

Today, the world produces over 300 million tons of potatoes each year. The Soviet Union used to be the largest producer, followed by China and Poland. Today, China and India produce the most potatoes. In the United States, each person eats an average of 142 pounds of potatoes per year, mostly in the form of processed potatoes, rather than fresh potatoes. Fresh potato consumption declined from fifty pounds per person in 1993 to thirty-seven pounds per person in 2006. Belgian potato‑eaters pack away over 440 pounds of potatoes per person per year. (Incidentally, the Belgians created “French fries,” NOT the French).

French Fries (Used with permission of Jess Lander.)
French Fries (Used with permission of Jess Lander.)

However, the French created many of the world’s best potato dishes. Enlivening the bland potato with grated cheese, cream, herbs and spices, onion, garlic, or butter, French cooks have made the potato once more a food fit for a king. No potatoes dish melts in the mouth or more seductively than the French version of scalloped potatoes, made with cream and Swiss cheese and a hint of garlic. (See recipe in my post, “Food for Art’s Sake.”) A far cry from plastic wool.

Another dish far removed from the frozen French fries so hated by Baker is the Spanish national dish, “Tortilla Espanola.”  Completely unrelated to the Mexican tortilla, the Spanish version essentially resembles a large potato pancake or omelette. Easily made in 1/2‑hour, the “Tortilla” keeps well at room temperature for several hours, tastes wonderful cold, and makes a fabulous picnic or late-night snack dish, too.

La Paz, Bolivia market (Used with permission of Mark Shandro.)
Potatoes for Sale, La Paz, Bolivia market (Used with permission of Marc Shandro.)

Dropped like a hot potato by dieters and disparaged with the nickname of “spuds,” potatoes deserve more respect.

Forget the plastic wool. Pass the real potatoes, please!!!

As usual, M. F. F. Fisher, patron saint of food writers, speaks the last word, rhapsodizing this time on freshly made potato chips (yes, fresh):

“It is said that a few connoisseurs, such as old George Saintsbury, can recall physically the bouquet of certain great vintages a half century after tasting them. I am a mouse among elephants now, but I can say just as surely that this minute, in a northern-California valley, I can taste-smell-hear-see and then feel between my teeth the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace. They were uneven in both thickness and color, probably made by a new apprentice in the hotel kitchen, and almost surely they smelled faintly of either chicken or fish, for that was always the case there. They were a little too salty, to encourage me to drink. They were ineffable. I am still nourished by them. That is probably why I can be so firm about not eating my way though barrels, tunnels, mountains more of them here in the land where they hang like square cellophane fruit on wire trees in all the grocery stores, to tempt me sharply every time I pass them.” (The New Yorker, 1968)

(See the PROINPA web site for the stunning paintings of potatoes by Bolivian artist, Mamani Mamani. )

Potato Nutrients (FAO)
Potato Nutrients (USDA)

NUTRITION NOTES

A 4‑oz. potato supplies 86 calories and contains vitamin C, some of the B‑vitamins, and dietary fiber. The latest information suggests that nutrients are distributed widely throughout the flesh, and not just under the skin, as previously believed. Potatoes contain 80% water

TORTILLA ESPAÑOLA

Serves 4‑6

1 cup olive oil

4 large potatoes, thinly sliced to about 1/8‑inch thick

1 large onion, thinly sliced to about 1/8‑inch thick

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

Salt to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy, non‑stick skillet (seasoned cast‑iron is best). Add the potato and onion slices, one by one, alternating layers of potatoes and onions. Salt each layer as it is finished. Turn the potatoes often to prevent sticking. Cook over medium heat until the potatoes are tender.

Tortilla Espanola (Used with permission.)
Tortilla Espanola (Used with permission.)

While the potatoes are cooking, beat the eggs in a large bowl. Get out another large bowl and a large free‑standing sieve. Put the sieve into the empty bowl.

Turn off the heat under the potatoes and remove the potato mixture with a slotted spoon. Turn the mixture into the sieve and let any excess oil drain into the large bowl. After about 2 minutes, pour the potatoes into the egg mixture and stir gently with a rubber spatula to coat all the potatoes with the eggs. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, pour all of the remaining olive from the skillet into the large bowl (the one with the sieve). Reserve the oil.

Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel, making sure that all food particles are removed. Heat 3 T. of the reserved oil in the skillet over medium‑high heat and pour in the potato/egg mixture, patting it into a large flat pancake. Cook until the pancake is semi‑set and golden brown on one side. Flip the pancake onto a plate, add two more tablespoons of oil to the skillet and slide the pancake in, uncooked side down. Cook until golden brown on the other side. Repeat the flipping procedure 2‑3 more times, leaving pancake no longer than 1 minute on each side over the heat. Slide the pancake onto a clean plate and let cool to room temperature. Makes 1 10‑inch pancake. Cut into wedges and sprinkle with chopped parsley to serve.

This Spanish potato omelette makes an excellent snack or light supper served with sausages and green salad.

BOOKS ABOUT POTATOES

Examen chimique de la pomme de terre, by Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1778)

The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman,  W. G.  Burton, and  J. G. Hawkes

Notes of a Potato Watcher, by James Lang

One Potato, Two Potato: 300 Recipes from Simple to Elegant, by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens

A Passion for Potatoes, by Lydie Marshall

The Potato Book, by Alan Romans

Propitious Esculent: the Potato in World History, by John Reader

The Ultimate Potato Book: Hundreds of Ways to Turn America’s Favorite Side Dish into a Meal, by Bruce Weinstein

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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