Monday, July 21, 2008

Newspaper Column - POTATO BELLS

Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 21 July 2008.

The United Nations has declared 2008 the Year of the Potato, so it is appropriate that we pay homage to this humble tuber which grows so well on the prairie. In fact, potatoes are the only vegetable grown in Saskatchewan in sufficient quantities to meet local demand. In other words, we are potato self-sufficient. (Excluding potatoes, we import about 97% of all vegetables sold in local grocery stores.)

Saskatchewan farmers also produce seed potatoes which, thanks to an unexplained phenomenon called “northern vigor” are in demand by potato farmers south of the border. Northern vigor means the plants grow faster and produce more potatoes than seed potatoes from warmer climates. (This may be due to the longer days, cooler nights or colder winters on the prairies, but nobody quite knows for sure. Research is ongoing.)

The United Nations chose to celebrate the potato because of its growing popularity around the world, especially in developing countries where the potato has great potential for alleviating the hunger caused by higher prices for wheat, corn and rice. Potatoes are also part of the U.N.’s mandate to improve the lives of women in poorer countries where farming and marketing is often women’s work, so if more potatoes are consumed, women and their children will benefit.

In my family, the potato patch was my dad’s project. As children, we helped to plant and harvest 400 hills of potatoes, and later when the harvest was in the cold room, we kept the potatoes “sprouted” through the winter months. We ate a lot of potatoes when I was growing up. When I got my own home, dad kept me supplied with potatoes until a couple of years ago when he retired from the farm. Now I grow my own. My plot at the City Park Community Garden is stuffed full of fingerling potatoes, which are long and yellow and never need to be peeled.

The potato has an interesting history. It originated in the Andes Mountains of South America, where it was a staple and sacred food of the Incas. The farmers of Peru still grow 2,800 different varieties of potatoes. Spanish explorers took the potato back to Europe in the 1500s, where it was not quite as popular as South American gold—many people thought potatoes were poisonous and could cause a whole host of diseases such as leprosy.

Because potatoes were so easy to cultivate and produced so much food for so little effort (as compared, say, to wheat) it was believed that anyone who grew them would become chronically lazy. Suspicious farmers refused to plant them, let alone eat them. It wasn’t until the kings and queens of Europe began touting the pleasures of potatoes (and growing them in the royal gardens) that the rest of the population caught on. Potatoes have seen their dark days. In the mid-1800s in Ireland, potato crops were destroyed by a blight, causing widespread starvation and prompting many people to leave Ireland for greener pastures in North America.

Europeans eat more potatoes per capita than anyone else. North Americans come second (much of that as French fries), but the largest producer of potatoes is now China, attesting to the potato’s potential for feeding the growing populations of the world.

Potatoes are very good for you. Eaten with dairy products, they provide almost all the elements of a healthy diet. Most world cuisines include potatoes from perogies to curries to gratins, even, according to the UN website, potato-based desserts. Personally, I like potatoes any which way but mashed. Now that delicious baby potatoes are at the farmers’ markets—and a garden near you—it is a perfect time to celebrate the International Year of the Potato.

Potato Bells
Peel and wash one large potato per person. Using a melon baller, scoop out half-circle “bells” of raw potato. Cook the “bells” in salted boiling water just until tender. Drain. Smother the warm potatoes in melted butter. Fry in a hot skillet until the potatoes are golden brown.

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