By Jack Sparacino
This is a good year for granting equal time, at least I hope so. In that spirit, having written recently about rice, it seemed only fair to pay similar attention to that great American tuber, the potato.
Like the column on rice, this one was a tough challenge. No small potatoes. So it looked like a good idea to do some consulting. Mr. Peanut was busy at a celebrity “roast,” but I did get to spend some quality time with Mr. Potato Head. He was thick skinned, like any good consultant, but chipper and we saw eye to eye. Right away, he peeled off some interesting historical and agricultural information, which I will attempt to summarize.
1. There are about five thousand potato varieties worldwide. Three thousand of them are found in the Andes alone, mainly in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia.
2. One thing that doesn’t seem to be in short supply is associations and organizations dedicated to growing and selling more potatoes. The Potato Association of America. Potato Growers of Iowa. The National Potato Foundation. And many others. I’ll bet some of them have pretty cool looking hats that look like you know what.
3. NBA basketball star “Spud” Webb stood only five foot seven yet he was a superb dunker and had excellent seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and the Sacramento Kings. “Spud” Chandler spent his entire 11-year pitching career with the Yankees; his career winning percentage of .717 is the highest of any pitcher with at least 100 victories since 1876. Before that, “Spud” Davis was a highly accomplished National League catcher and played for the championship 1934 Cardinals (more on them later). But I digress.
4. Potatoes are cross-pollinated, mostly by insects, but a significant amount of self-fertilizing also occurs. Here’s where potatoes’ eyes come in handy, as they can really see what they’re doing.
5. Potatoes are the leading vegetable crop in the United States (not including sweet potatoes), contributing to about 15% of farm sales receipts for vegetables.
6. Among major produce crops, potatoes trail only grapes in farm income.
7. More than 50% of potato sales are to processors for french fries, chips, dehydrated potatoes, and other potato products.
8. Americans consumed almost 130 pounds per person of fresh and processed potatoes annually during the 2000s, compared to 90 pounds per person for tomatoes, the second place vegetable. (Is it only a coincidence that they rhyme?)
9. Since 2000, U.S. export volumes of potato products have averaged 4.8 million pounds; this is about 11% of U.S. potato production.
10. Potatoes taste great (especially after they have been washed and cooked).
11. The number of potato recipes currently in use is over 99 bazillion. Every single one of them is good for you (or not).
12. You really can make a great meal out of only one potato. Our friend Greg Koulis did this with us once at a restaurant in Charleston. The potato they served him was nearly the size of a football and it arrived under an avalanche of sour cream, shredded cheese and bacon bits. To which he added two more containers of sour cream. We’re still trying to figure out how he ate the whole thing.
While my research is far from complete, several conclusions seem inescapable. For one thing, potatoes are as American as apple pie, or did I get that backwards? Secondly, Mr. Potato Head is perhaps the most under-rated celebrity in the field of hand held toys, even after the “Toy Story” movies. Finally, and this is almost impossible to overstate, potatoes have some of the best nicknames of just about any vegetables I know. Spuds, taters, and murphies, for example.
And speaking of nicknames, could they have been called Rice Webb? Sweet Potato Chandler? Beans Davis? Nope, they had to be Spud.
By Jack Sparacino