Local Bounty: A tribute to those starchy treasures, potatoes

The writer’s husband, Dan, searches for potatoes hidden in the dirt.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The writer’s husband, Dan, searches for potatoes hidden in the dirt.

LOCAL BOUNTY We love the tomatoes from our garden. And our fresh broccoli is really good. But what really gets us excited is our homegrown potatoes.

Potatoes are the magical vegetable we cannot see. They hide in the ground, and for five long months we wonder how the heck they are doing and what they will look like.

“The biggest joy is when I first stick my shovel in the ground in October and see what’s under there,” says my husband Dan. “The potatoes pop out and you never know how many you’ll get.”

In the fall, digging up the taters is a two-person job.

Hubby hauls a heavy shovel to the rows of bushy green plants, 2 to 3 feet tall. He thrusts the wide blade deep into the soil, below the tubers, and flips the dirt over.

That’s when it happens. The big reveal. That moment of pure delight, as the taters tumble off the blade of the shovel and peek out of the ground like Easter eggs.

Kneeling in the dirt with a cardboard box at my side, I snatch up the starchy treasures, then comb through the soil with my bare hands to scoop up others that might still be hidden.

Over the years, many family members and friends have eaten our organic potatoes, but only a select few have experienced the thrill of the dig.

My dear departed Dad, who grew up in Norway, was a natural-born potato excavator.

Norwegians eat lots of boiled potatoes. And Dad was a teenager during the Nazi occupation. For five years, there was no meat or milk. The family survived the war by eating root vegetables, rabbits and eel.

When Dad pulled potatoes with us, his memories of those dark days would surface.

“The stories were sad, but he really enjoyed harvesting those potatoes,” Dan recalls.

Our sister-in-law Sheri, a talented cook and gardener, was our most enthusiastic digger.

She remembers her first potato encounter, during a trip to the Northeast from her home in Las Vegas.

“On a sunny fall day, Dan was harvesting potatoes for our dinner that night. I was so excited about this, and I pleaded with him to let me dig them up. What a joy it was to unearth those beautiful gems, an experience I’ll not soon forget.”

Instead of boiling or roasting them the way we usually do, Sheri sliced, seasoned and grilled them. “They came out crispy and delicious, and tasting like the freshest potato I’d ever eaten,” she says.

Dan and I have been growing potatoes for more than 25 years. Every fall, we harvest about 40 pounds and then gobble them up from Halloween all the way to Easter.

He is the spud master, the one who plans and plants. I am Mrs. Potato Head. I scrub and cook them.

We started with two rows and now there are four rows, one-third of our 30-by-20-foot garden. We grow four varieties: Yukon Gold, Kennebec, Katahdin and Pontiac Reds.

“With potatoes we really have had success. An experiment has turned into a tradition,” Dan says.

The crop begins in the spring with purchased seed potatoes or potatoes from last year’s harvest that sprouted eyes.

Small potatoes or pieces of potato are placed in the ground in rows 3 feet apart, then the soil is slightly mounded over each row.

The plants produce small white flowers, but require nothing besides water and maybe an occasional raking between the rows, and continued mounding of soil around the plants.

“They’ve got to have good soil cover. If they are exposed to the light they turn green,” the spud master says.

Chlorophyll turns the skins green and also indicates the presence of colorless and toxic solanine. The green skin must be removed before cooking.

Oh, but let’s not forget the year of the Colorado potato beetle, when the yellow-and-black striped insects buzzed into town, and had to be snatched off the leaves and flicked into a can of soapy water.

When we tell people we grow potatoes, often they want to know why we do all that work when they are one of the least expensive vegetables in the store.

We tell them that store-bought potatoes are grown with pesticides and can’t compare to homegrown in texture and taste.

And of course, there is the aforementioned harvest surprise.

Our friend Dave, a Saratoga Springs resident who grew up on a potato farm in Western New York, really appreciates a good potato. In the fall, we always give him a bag of freshly dug spuds.

“I love the smell of the dirt on your potatoes,” Dave says. “That’s hard to find in the grocery store.”

Tater trivia
Each day more than a billion people eat at least one potato.

The top potato-producing country is China, followed by India, Russia, Ukraine and the U.S.

The longest-running potato festival is in Carbondale, Colorado, where Potato Days have been celebrated for 112 years. Events include a Tater Trot race, baked potatoes cooked in an underground pit and potato sack races.

The Mashed Potato was a dance craze in the 1960s popularized by R&B singer Dee Dee Sharp. In the musical movie “Hairspray,” Tracy Turnblad and the gang do the dance on the Corney Collins show.

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