The Popular Potato

The venerable and versatile potato, everyone’s favorite comfort food, reinvents itself in breads, soups, pies, and pancakes. Baked, boiled, fried, roasted, or steamed—the spud will never go out of food fashion. A Short History Potatoes were cultivated in 200 BC by the Incas. Spanish Conquistadors brought them to Europe early in the 1500s, but spuds weren’t welcomed at first—they were believed the devil’s work, along with eggplants and tomatoes. A relative of deadly nightshade, the potato was once considered poisonous. Sir Walter Raleigh planted the first spuds in Ireland in 1589. But the spotlight shone on potatoes in eighteenth century France, when the economist and army officer Antoine Parmentier created a potato-only feast at court, a concept he visualized in a German prison where he was fed nothing but the lowly spuds. Later, Marie Antoinette popularized them by wearing potato flowers in her hair. Potatoes arrived on our shores in 1621, and the ubiquitous French fry was later served in Thomas Jefferson’s White House. During the Alaskan gold rush, the tubers’ vitamin C content was so prized that miners traded their treasure for them. The potato’s importance became all too apparent in 1845, when a deadly fungus destroyed successive crops in Europe. Ireland suffered the most—over a million people died and many emigrated. On the lighter side, if you remember Howdy Doody, then you must remember actually being encouraged to play with your food—the first Mr. Potato Head toy consisted of 28 plastic features. Parents had to supply a real potato. The spud’s crowning achievement? In 1995 NASA chose it to be the first vegetable grown in space. Packed With Goodness Potatoes are fat- and cholesterol-free and low in calories and sodium. A white baked potato with its skin offers potassium, which helps counteract the effects of salt in our diet, along with folate, vitamin C, and fiber. A sweet potato provides even more fiber, plus iron and vitamins A and E. The carotenoids in sweet potatoes help reduce sun damage to skin and increase the body’s immune response to help fight off viral invaders. At about 100 calories and less than 10 percent of the daily carbohydrate value, potatoes are a source of energy that fills you and satisfies like few other foods. Just refrain from “gilding the lily!” Butter, cream, cheese, and oil add fat and calories to this nutritional gem. A Potato Primer No matter which type of tuber you choose, cook potatoes in their skins to maximize nutrition. Scrub under cold running water to remove dirt. Always choose firm spuds with smooth, unblemished skin. Avoid any with wrinkles, holes, or “eyes.” A greenish tinge means they have been exposed to light; avoid these, too. Store potatoes in a cool, dark, well-ventilated place and use within two weeks. Try to use more perishable new potatoes within three days. Pick a Potato The versatile potato can be cooked any way you like. Different varieties have their own characteristics, so experiment to discover which kinds you like best for baking, mashing, salads, and more. Variety Uses Long whites Can be baked, boiled, or sauteed; thumb-sized versions are called fingerling potatoes. New potatoes Any variety of potato that’s young. These haven’t had time to convert sugar fully into starch, so they have a crisp, waxy texture. Small en