Up in Fort Fairfield, Aroostook County, in my home state of Maine, they hold a Potato Blossom Festival each July, complete with a parade, reigning queen, games, contests, and special events of all kinds. I understand this summer marked the 75th year. In Maine, the potato industry is no small potatoes.
That’s obvious from the emphasis we give to potatoes in the seasonal schedule, the local business and agricultural community, and of course, the hometown menus. Back when I was in school, how we envied the “County” kids their “potato recess.” They probably didn’t feel quite so excited about the weeks of back-breaking labor, especially since they’d had to start the school year earlier than the rest of us to fulfill the required class days.
While some schools have phased out this decades-old tradition, many high schools in northern Maine still close for the harvest break from mid-September through mid-October-ish. In the old days, virtually everyone pitched in to help the farmers with this dirty, difficult job. As the entire community pulled together, the youth learned a work ethic that’s rare in the rest of the nation.
In my current work-in-progress, Hope Chest, both the main character Angie and her younger brother frequently get sent up to hoe the potato patch on their island home. Years later, her son Nicolás (in Destiny at Dolphin Bay) expresses concern because he couldn’t pick his potatoes before heading out to school and had to leave the hard work to his mom. He needn’t worry, his mother knows the job far better than he does.
We never had a provincial potato break each fall in Chiloé. Why not, given the importance of potatoes to the local economy and culture? No small potatoes in the islands either. In fact, a potato-peeling contest is part of many fairs and festivals, and lifting an 80-kilo sack of spuds used to mark the traditional rite of passage to manhood.
And considering the central place of potatoes in Chilote gastronomy and my personal love of food in general, I don’t know why I didn’t write more about it in Destiny at Dolphin Bay. I guess I had to draw the line somewhere, right? Or end up with an epic-length book.
But during her extended stay on the island of Chauquelín, the character Melissa ends up doing a lot of cooking. Short on supplies over a tough post-earthquake winter, she finds little to cook with besides potatoes.
Finally, near the end, she writes: “Our menu didn’t vary much from the same brown bread and potatoes—boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato soup—but at least the (new) stove’s blazing heat quickly took off the chill each morning. And we could bake now—potatoes as well as bread.”
“My idea of heaven is a great big baked potato and someone to share it with.” –Oprah Winfrey
Most of Maine’s potatoes (40%) are the common and popular Russet Burbank, destined for baking, mashing, and frying. Frito-Lay chip varieties make up the next largest percentage (15%) of the crop.
Without this famous tuber, it would be hard to imagine Maine tables, or indeed many of the world’s emblematic cuisines—German, Russian, or Polish, for example. But did you know that the potato is an American plant unknown to the rest of the world until after the discovery of the New World?
Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andean countries of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru for thousands of years. Since Columbus and Pizarro, they’ve traveled around the globe to become one of the world’s principal foods, after wheat, rice, and corn.
The greatest potato-gene bank in the world exists in Peru and includes more than 10,000 varieties. That’s mind-boggling, really. And more surprising, some genetic research shows that almost all those varieties proceed from the germplasm of a plant grown originally in the Archipelago of Chiloé.
“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.” –A. A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh
The magical islands of Chiloé in southern Chile offer climate and soil conditions ideal for the cultivation of potatoes (like in Maine and the Maritime Provinces of Canada). Chiloé’s 286 native varieties of potato constitute a national agricultural heritage.
Most of the potatoes we know are round and have a skin that may be yellow/brown, gray, or pink/red and white or yellowish pulp. In Chiloé, on the other hand, you’ll discover varieties with elongated or curved shapes; purple, blue, or variegated skin; and bluish, violet, or yellow pulp.
The most commonly marketed varieties in Chiloé are:
- Viscocha – a variety with a high water content, excellent for potato dough recipes
- Clavela Lisa – a pink color, very creamy, and good for making potato tortilla
- Guadacho – can be multicolored, blue, white, or black
- Cabra (“Goat”) – a beautiful pink color, it has a sweet and slightly spicy flavor; recommended for frying
- Bruja (“Witch”) – dark purple and works well in salad
What an amazing range! These heritage potatoes are a true culinary treasure.
What’s your favorite way to eat potatoes?
Let me count the ways: Boiled, mashed, fried (raw and precooked), baked, stuffed, scalloped, grilled, au gratin… As hash browns, salads, soups, skins, chips… In cakes, pies, and even candy! (Have you tried Needhams AKA Maine potato candy?)
“Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew.” –Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers, J. R. R. Tolkien
Have I missed anything? All those rainbow colors don’t matter as much to the cook as another factor: It’s the amount of water a potato contains that determines its quality or use in our kitchens.
This particularity isn’t evident to the sight or touch, so we must become familiar with the different varieties. Potatoes with a greater water content resist cooking in water better and don’t “fall apart” so easily. Potatoes with less water are preferred for frying.
In Chile we enjoy many dishes made with potato as a main ingredient. They’ve evolved into a highlight of the cultural and culinary patrimony:
Pastel de papas – a very traditional Chilean dish and similar to shepherd’s or cottage pie. The Chilean version layers pino (a beef-onion sauce), hard-boiled sliced eggs, raisins, black olives, and of course mashed potatoes (called puré). It may be topped with cheese and/or sprinkled with powdered sugar and is characterized by the two iconic spice mixes which form the basis of genuine Chilean cuisine: -aliño completo (mainly cumin) and -merquén (mainly ground smoked chili pepper).
Charquicán – a typical late summer/fall hodge-podge of potatoes and other seasonal veggies and either ground beef or barbecue leftovers
Stuffed (or filled) potatoes – cold puré mixed with flour to form a dough, rolled into potato shapes, then filled with piño and deep-fried. (This is what we do with all those leftover mashed potatoes.)
Golden potatoes – parboiled potatoes deep-fried whole
Duchess potatoes – a mashed potato-and-flour dough formed into balls with a cube of cheese pressed into the center and deep-fried
Gnocchis (or ñoquis) – These potato dumplings, usually served with bolognese sauce, arrived in southern Chile from Italy… via Argentina.
Fries – As in many countries, fries have grown from small potatoes into a huge part of the national cuisine, especially as an accompaniment to the multiplicity of popular sandwiches. Every lunch counter, food truck, and street kiosko sells fries in paper packages, with toppings that vary from ají (hot pepper sauce—don’t confuse it with ketchup as I once did!) to mustard, mayo, vinegar, or even a shake of merquén. (One of my first purchases in Chile was a French-fry cutter. It’s now an antique!)
The Potato Bread of Life
If Chile is a potato kingdom, Chiloé is its capital. Chilotes eat potatoes like the rest of the country eats bread, since wheat flour costs much more. Besides the typical dishes, islanders have come up with some unique treats of their own. A sampler:
Milcaos – These quintessential island potato patties can be fried or baked. They’re made of a mixture of cooked and shredded raw potatoes and lard, with sometimes (hopefully!) the addition of chicharrones (pork cracklings) in the middle. Don’t shy away from the black color—they’re absolutely delish.
Chuañe – a similar dough formed into medium-sized balls, wrapped in pangue or nalca leaves, and cooked in an oven
Chochoca – another potato dough preparation, kneaded and stuck to a large rolling pin (about 1.5 m long), and cooked over coals
Chapaleles – are boiled, flat potato dumplings often added, along with milcaos, to beach clambakes. (Think a rubber disk. Like the character Melissa, I’d slip mine into my boots if I could get away with it.) And then I understand there are sweet chapaleles, similar to Czech knedlíky or German knödel. They’re served warm with honey or sugar.
Besides enriching our diets, the potato also possesses no small potatoes in health benefits. It contains carbohydrates and starch, which contribute energy to our bodies. It also contains nutrients such as proteins, folic acid, and many, many vitamins and minerals. And of course, lots of fiber. The potato has various medicinal uses as a diuretic, antispasmodic, and antioxidant. It has antibacterial properties and prevents scurvy (like citrus).
“Not everyone can be a truffle. Most of us are potatoes. And a potato is a very good thing to be.” –Antoine-Auguste Parmentier
What else can you do with potatoes? Some enterprising potato fans have come up with an innovative spa treatment called poñi (meaning “potato” in the Mapudungún dialect). The main ingredient in these facial masks is…you guessed it, Chilote potato flour.
Here I can’t resist a couple of insider jokes about potatoes. The word “potato” in Chilean Spanish is papa, which is similar to papá, “daddy,” except for the accent mark. With the article el instead of la, Papa also refers to the Pope.
While teaching church history, one new missionary we know mixed up la papa and El Papa. Students still howl telling how he explained the medieval period of multiple popes: “One potato here, another potato there, and nobody knew who the real potato was.” Way to go down in history.
The Pope/potato, Papa/papa connection has also prompted many jokes about El Papa americano who lives in Rome now. Like the current pope, potatoes originated in South America, and everyone knows “American-cut” potato chips are ruffled or crinkled—our favorite.
Potatoes plants self-sprout from eyes in the skin, don’t they? Aroostook County, Maine, also does a lucrative commerce in seed spuds along with the Frito-Lay crinkle cuts. Those tiny spots—blemishes—on the tubers become fruitful seeds.
Lately I’ve been thinking about prayer as sowing seeds. An investment today, you might say, in a harvest tomorrow. It takes plenty of watering and hoeing too. But “let us not lose heart…for in due time, we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:9, NASB). Eventually, in their time, even the smallest potatoes can bring forth large crops.
“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” ―Robert Brault
No doubt about it, kingdom projects will meet opposition all along the way. And just as a potato harvest faces many challenges—bad weather, lack of workers, storage, prices—on my harvest field, I too fumble with doubts about the Return-On-Investment. Is the ROI worth all the work and hassle?
Absolutely. You bet your sweet potatoes. Because “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! They…shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing their harvest with them” (Ps. 126:5-6, paraphrased from ESV).
Friends, let’s not lose heart before the end. You and I may not be potato princesses at the head of life’s parade, but the King of the harvest deems our role valuable—and no small potatoes.
Now, would you like to try those pink and purple chips at the harvest celebration?