My Love Affair With Potatoes
By Patty A. Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director
I recently dug out my first harvest of potatoes from the Robb Garden: a little clutch of warm-hued Yukon Golds huddled atop the soil, ranging from ping pong ball-sized to fist-sized, promising a couple of tasty meals at least. As I began to gather them up and toss them into a canvas bag, something in the motion, and the feel of the smooth skins, and the thunking sound of potato against potato in the bag triggered a memory.
Russia, 2001. A potato field in the Republic of Mari El, in the rich and fertile Black Earth region. I’m walking a row alongside members of the family I am staying with, picking up potatoes that their tractor just churned up, dropping them, thunkety-thunk, into a large canvas bag standing at the end of my row. The potato field was this family’s mainstay, supplying their own needs as well as a surplus to sell at market. Eating potatoes day after day, year after year, did not diminish the family’s enthusiasm for these “earth apples”. When it came time for a lunch break, they eagerly started a small campfire right at the edge of the field and roasted a few potatoes by snuggling them in around the coals and setting a metal bucket over them. The anthropologist in me relished observing and participating in this example of social behavior; the hungry human in me relished the taste of freshly-roasted potatoes, and the satisfyingly full feeling in my belly.
I think that was the moment when I became infected with potato-love, and the first chance I got, I started growing my own potatoes. That chance was when I moved into a small house – a glorified cabin, really – in Fairbanks, Alaska. The gardening season is brutally short there – the last spring freeze happens in mid-May, and the first fall freeze can be expected in early September – but the extreme day length makes gardens burst into action almost overnight. I planted a raised bed full of German Butterballs, a mouth-wateringly savory little tuber that is unmatched if you favor waxy, salad-type potatoes (which I do, voraciously). After planting, I had a few seed tubers left over, and I decided to just dump them in some leaf litter along the side of my driveway. Let them take their chances, I thought. The raised bed produced a bumper crop, which I found pleasant enough; but what amazed me was that the potatoes sprouted up even in that leaf litter, and yielded a respectable amount of creamy potato flesh. At that point I became convinced that you could grow potatoes anywhere, and I resolved that I would never be without a potato patch in any garden I tended.
Imagine my amusement some years later when it became clear I would be moving to Ireland, seemingly the ancestral land of the potato (which of course it isn’t: potatoes are a quintessential New World crop, hauled back to the Old World by travellers who knew a good thing when they saw it). I grew a bed full of potatoes each of the eight years I lived in Dublin, and never once had a speck of blight – the Irish are of course potato experts by now, and blight-resistance is built into pretty much every variety of seed potato you can buy. My problem, however, was that I disagreed with the prevailing Irish opinion on which potato varieties are the best to eat. Irish tastes run to those big, floury potatoes, which I find bland, unless you slather them with butter and salt – which is, as it turns out, what any eejit (idiot) should know you are supposed to do. I remember trying to convince one Irishman of the merits of my beloved waxy/creamy varieties, and he actually had a gag reflex right in front of me. Alas.
So of course upon taking up my current position as Garden Program Director at the University of the Pacific, I knew I would grow potatoes in the Robb Garden right here on campus. Potatoes had so far not been among the crops planted in the Robb Garden, and when I shared my plans, some asked incredulously, “Isn’t it too hot?” Ah, but that is the beauty of the California climate: there is a growing season for everything. Planted in early February, during a rare break in the torrential spring rains this year, our two small beds of potatoes are now yielding their golden treasure.
Any potato-love out there? We’ve got tubers to spare!