Po-tay-to po-tah-to po-too-to

You say potato, Andreae Prozesky also says potato.

This Saturday, people of all ages and persuasions will gather together to celebrate the humble tuber which has helped us Newfoundlanders eke out an existence from the rocky soil all these many years. Yes, it’s the 7th Annual Potato Festival at the MUN Botanical Gardens.

“Potato festival?” you may well ask. And indeed, what is there to celebrate? The potato is so very un-glamourous, so ordinary, such a staple. It’s not really a party vegetable, like daikon or jicama or the sugar snap pea. It makes its way onto the table and you don’t even really notice that it’s there.
   
And yet the potato has such a marvelously interesting history. Sir Walter Raleigh is generally credited with bringing the potato from Columbia to England and Ireland (and indeed, there is a brilliant episode of Black Adder on the subject). It may actually have been Sir Francis Drake, although it doesn’t much matter now. Potatoes liked England. England liked potatoes. Ireland may or may not have liked potatoes, but that doesn’t much matter either, because by the 1800s the Irish weren’t allowed to eat anything else. When the Irish potato blight of the 1840s struck, many of the Irish who didn’t perish took off to seek their fortunes in America, and lo and behold, they’re still there. Newfoundland was already pretty much its own little Ireland by that point, boiling up potatoes like nobody’s business.
   
Yes, it’s a strange kind of Stockholm Syndrome we’ve got for the potato. Forced potato monoculture nearly wiped out a nation, and yet some of us (myself included) could happily eat potatoes with all three meals of the day, with a bag of chips for an afternoon snack.
   
They’re versatile things, potatoes. They can be whipped into a smooth, buttery mash. They can be fried until crisp and golden. A great bowl of potato salad represents abundance and family and picnicking. A solitary baked potato provides comfort for the individual doing dinner solo. Curried and stuffed into a samosa, they are exotic and intriguing. French fries topped with dressing and gravy are the picture of indulgence. Steamed baby reds, hollowed out to hold a teaspoon of sour cream and a single, curved bit of chive are pure sophistication.
   
Around these parts, potatoes come in two types: new and old. This isn’t a euphemism. New potatoes came out of the ground this year, old potatoes came out of the ground ages ago. New potatoes tend to be waxy, and are suited to dishes where you would want the potato to hold its shape: chowders and stews and such, or straight-ahead boiling. They tend to make a watery mash. Knowing this, I should stop ordering fish cakes for the next little while until the potatoes age. I’m bound to be disappointed. 
   
Old potatoes are floury, better for mashing and for making french fries. And fish cakes. If you’re looking to bake your potatoes, russets are hard to beat. You don’t need to buy the ones labeled “baking potatoes” and wrapped in foil. That’s just a cash grab. I don’t get the foil-wrapping part, either. It makes sense if you’re cooking your potatoes in the coals of a campfire (ohmygod yum), but not for your standard indoor oven. The skins will be crispier without it.

Send your questions, comments, suggestions and potato art to dreae@thescope.ca