By Jean Ann Pollard
Once upon a time Maine was covered by ice a mile high. Every school kid knows that. What most of them don’t know is that even on the fringes of North America’s ice sheet, and in the cold, high Andes of Peru, a nutritious root vegetable called the potato provided people with food. Belonging to the same group of plants as nightshade, its hardiness made it the equivalent of corn, the New World’s other starchy staple grown in warmer areas.
By 1530, when the Spanish conquistador, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, arrived, Peruvian Indians had already been cultivating potatoes for several thousand years. Small in size, they were mistaken for a kind of truffle and called tartuffo – a name that persisted with variations in parts of Europe for some time. Pedro de Cieza of the Pizarro expedition described them as somewhat similar to chestnuts. They had other names: battata and papa.
Apparently arriving in Spain from Quito in 1539, the first written reference to potatoes appeared in a 1553 account called the Chronica del Peru by Pedro de Leon (Pedro Creca). It was published in Seville.
Soon, of course, they were introduced into Italy and other European countries, and became a basic ration aboard ships. Says Ian Sidaway in The Goodness of Potatoes and Root Vegetables, Sir Francis Drake took them to England, “having acquired a consignment in the Colombian port of Cartagena.”
While central and northern Europe, Russia, the British Isles, and Ireland gladly accepted the new tuber, the journey from South America to North America took longer and was roundabout. Some were included among “a list of plants and seeds” shipped to Governor Endecott of Virginia in the 1620s. But no more is heard.
Historian Howard Russell, in A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England, reports that the first potatoes “of historic consequence” “arrived with five shiploads of families of Scottish blood from Londonderry, Ireland” in 1718. Some of these immigrants, he says, spent the winter in Portland, Maine, a few settling permanently at Cape Elizabeth and about Casco Bay. On April 11, 1719, sixteen families began a settlement in southern New Hampshire. The state’s historian is explicit: they “introduced the culture of potatoes which were first planted in the garden of Nathaniel Walker of Andover.” In 1720, more Scots-Irish came to settle on the Maine coast. “They planted potatoes at Wells, while others sat down about the mouth of the Kennebec.”
Spuds weren’t immediately popular with everyone. Clarence Day, quoting Parker’s History of Londonderry, says they were “but little regarded” by the English. One of the immigrants “gave some seed potatoes to an English neighbor, who planted them and then waited for them to set balls which he thought were the edible parts.” His wife tried to cook them “in various ways but gave up in disgust. Not until the garden was plowed the following spring were the tubers found.”
In general, though, potatoes became a staple. For a long time Maine produced more for human and livestock consumption than all its grain crops combined. But in 1845, “a succession of crop failures throughout Europe, caused by the wind-borne spores of the potato blight fungus exacerbated by a particularly cold, wet summer destroyed three quarters of the European potato crop, killing more than a quarter-million people in the great Irish Potato Famine, and setting off waves of emigration to America.”
A prime factor was genetic. Willliam Woys Weaver, in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, states that “monocultural thinking caused the potato famine.” While spuds can be grown from seed, reproduction, as any gardener will tell you, is mainly by cloning: New plants grow from the ‘eyes’ of cut up mature tubers. Most varieties raised in Europe and North America up to the 1840s were genetic clones of a handful brought out of South America. “Through constant inbreeding, new varieties were created, yet genetically they were all nearly identical. When the blight struck, none of these old types were resistant to it, so the disease spread quickly and lethally.”
The Reverend Samuel Deane, writing in The New England Farmer in 1790, described popular early varieties. “No longer than about the year 1740, we had but one sort, a small reddish colored potato, of so rank a taste that it was scarcely eatable. Soon after this the white kidney potato appeared, as good table potatoes as I have known since; unless the red rough coated potato be excepted, which was introduced soon after. Since then we have had the Spanish potato, extremely prolific, but fit only for cattle and swine: Then the bunker potato; the small round potato, white and good tasted: A long red potato: A potato part red and part white, brought from Ireland in the late war: A large white potato, a great bearer, known by the name of the flour potato: Orange potato, so called from its color: Purple potato: Cranberry potato: and winter white. The last is as pleasant tasted as any that is cultivated, and exceeded by none, unless it be the yellow rough coat.”
By 1840, says Clarence Day in 1954, “The most prolific variety was the Long Red, also known as La Plata, Spanish, and Merino. It was grown chiefly as feed for livestock, although it was a good table potato late in the spring. The principal potato grown for the home table and for market was the Chenango, known also as Philadelphia and Mercer …. Other varieties grown about 1840 were the Pink Eye, Christie, Cowhorn, Irish Buckster, Perkins Early, Quoddy Blue, White Bluenose, and Peachblow.” Adds Mr. Holmes in the l828 issue of The New England Farmer and Mechanics Journal, “The long Reds and the Chenangoes were the lords of the potato field.”
As understanding of the blight’s origins spread, “experimentation in the 1850s and 1860s resulted in many of the most popular heirloom potatoes of the nineteenth century,” according to Weaver. Early Rose is still a good potato by any culinary standard.
While blight is still a threat today, providing one of the strongest arguments for preserving genetic diversity in all living things, some old-time potato favorites remain along with newer arrivals. Have you, for instance, tried the incredible lavender hearted All Blue?
Starch, an essential component of the human diet, is present in most traditional cuisines around the world. Throughout Asia it comes in the form of rice. In the Americas, corn. In the Mediterranean and Middle East it’s wheat, often shaped into bread. In many tropical countries in both hemispheres, tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes and cassava take over.
Potatoes have become the starchy staple of North America. Rich in vitamin C, they’re also high in potassium, which is concentrated in and around the skins. And they’re an excellent source of fiber. Potato skins are especially nutritious and have antioxidant properties important in cancer prevention. These nutrients should be preserved wherever possible.
Early, mid, and late season varieties abound. Caribe is ‘waxy’ and perfect for salads where it’s necessary to retain form. Kennebecs and others are mealy and perfect for mashing. Still others are big and oval for baking. There are even tiny varieties called fingerlings. Needless to say, with fingerlings it’s useless to try peeling. In fact, since most of a potato’s nutrients lie just under the skin, it’s important not to peel before cooking.
William Woys Weaver, in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, offers a recipe for Potato Pone, a West India dish. Here are his simple directions: Grate two pounds of potatoes, add four ounces of sugar, and the same of butter, one teaspoon of salt and one of pepper, mix well together, butter a baking dish, and bake brown.
Simply cooked potatoes are best, either boiled or baked. The following is a classic version.
Scrub 1 large Kennebec or Russet Burbank potato per person. Bake in a 400- to 450 -degree oven for 20 minutes. Pierce with a fork to prevent explosions! Then bake until tender, perhaps 40 minutes. Cooking time depends on potato size and variety. To serve, cut a cross in the top. Squeeze the sides to push up the flesh. Spoon on sour cream if you’re not counting calories, lowfat yogurt if you are. Sprinkle with any of the following:
chopped red onion or finely snipped chives
finely chopped fresh herbs such as parsley or cilantro
grated parmesan cheese
chopped, hard-boiled egg and hot pepper
finely chopped green Bell pepper and small, red, seeded tomato
Twice baked potatoes are a favorite.
Baked Stuffed Potatoes
Bake large potatoes as above. When cool enough to handle, cut each potato in half. Scoop the flesh into a warm bowl, leaving the half-skins whole. Blend the flesh with:
grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
a little yogurt
chopped chives (optional)
some freshly-ground black pepper
sea salt (optional)
When smooth, heap into skins. Sprinkle with:
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Pop back into oven and bake till browned on top, perhaps 20 minutes.
Potato skins are not only nutritious; they’re tasty.
Bake large potatoes as above. When tender, cut in half and scoop out the insides, leaving about 3/8 inch flesh on the skin. Cut the skins into strips, top each strip with grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese. Sprinkle with a little sea salt (optional) and extra-virgin olive oil. Place about 6 inches beneath broiler, and broil quickly till cheese is melted and skin is crisp. Interesting.