If the potato seems humdrum, think again. It has an exotic history filled with superstition, fear, conquest, and prosperity. The Peruvian Incas worshipped the potato and considered it more valuable than silver or gold. The language of the Quechua Indians has more than 1,000 words for it, including scab face and black ostrich mother. The Russians referred to it as the “devil’s apple” and later it became “the second bread.”
I explore Atlantic Canada’s Prince Edward Island, a gentle island, known as the cradle on the wave by the indigenous Mi’kmaq tribe, discovering a land filled with red soil, Acadian forest (red spruce, balsam fir, eastern hemlock, red oak, and yellow birch), and a variety of hiking trails. On this island where people rave about the fresh oysters, I am on the potato trail, noticing large red trucks filled with this popular vegetable as I collect quirky facts and folklore.
The best place to uncover potato trivia, superstitions, anecdotes, recipes, postcards, and tools, is at the Prince Edward Island Potato Museum. (Potato humor: When does an Irish potato change its nationality? When it is French-fried!) This off-the-beaten track museum, open May through October, in the town of O’Leary, is the place to trace potato history from Andean pottery motifs to Hollywood props (a mountain out of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.)
The potato was first discovered in South America and was later brought to Europe as the first edible tuber. Although Americans felt potatoes were best left to the pigs during colonial times, they changed their tune after the invention of the potato chip. Today Americans consume more potato chips than any other people in the world. The unlikely invention of this quintessential American snack food dates back to 1853 when a diner in Saratoga Springs, New York sent back his fried potatoes because they were too thick. As a joke, the chef shaved them ultra-thin, and started a huge food fad.
While Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin might not be the first names you associate with the potato, each are part of potato history. Jefferson—who served as Ambassador to France—is credited with introducing french fries to the States in the 1780s, and Franklin took part in a French feast where more than 20 dishes (from soup to liquor) featured potatoes.
At the P.E.I. museum I discovered the power of potatoes. Italians believed that a fatal curse could be put on a person by writing his or her name on a piece of paper and fastening it to a potato with as many pins as possible. The Peruvians, who measured time by how long it took the tubers to grow, also used them as a symbol for divination: a pile with an odd number of potatoes was a bad omen while an even number was a positive sign. And the Potato War fought between the Prussians and Austrians (1778-9) ended when the armies had eaten all the potatoes alongside the battle lines in Bohemia!
On a lighter note, Antoine-Auguste Parmentier (a French military pharmacist who spent time in a German prison surviving on potatoes) presented a bouquet of potato blossoms to King Louis XVI, who put one in his buttonhole and gave the rest to Marie Antoinette. She wore them in her hair at a social event, starting a fashion trend in the French court.
The museum offers the chance to become familiar with Prince Edward Island’s top potato varieties: Irish cobbler, Atlantic, sebago, chieftain, kennebee, red pontiac, russet burbank, sangre, shepody, and Yukon gold. Sixth generation potato farmer Raymond Loo (whose father invented the island sunshine variety) suggests goldrush or russet burbank for mashing or baking and shepody for mashing or fries.
Canadian potato cultivation dates from the 1600s and in the 1830s, they became Prince Edward Island’s main export. Potatoes are currently produced across Canada, but Prince Edward Island, with its acidic soil, remains the largest gro
(Recipe from the Prince Edward Island Interpretive Center) Ingredients:
1 cup hot mashed potatoes
1 pinch of salt
2 tablespoons butter
4 cups icing sugar
4 cups unsweetened coconut
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup semi sweet chocolate (melted)
1/2 cup cherries (optional)
1/4 cup chopped nuts (optional)
Sprinkle a pinch of salt over hot mashed potatoes. Spread with butter until dissolved. Add icing sugar and stir until dissolved. Add vanilla, coconut and optional ingredients. Stir well. Put into a 9 x 13 pan. Dribble melted chocolate on top. Allow to harden; cut into one-inch squares to serve.
Yields 48 one-inch-square pieces of fudge.
For more information: www.peipotatomuseum.com