“SPUDS” “taters,” “praties,” “apples of the earth” (literal translation from French), whatever you call them, potatoes are truly a popular food item. Do you doubt it? Why, in the past ten years some 2,800 million tons of them have been dug up out of the good earth.
By far the greater part of this huge crop was planted and harvested by modern machinery, but there is no doubt that a goodly proportion was grown by humble citizens in their own little vegetable gardens. Families that have carried on the custom of growing their own potatoes have been rewarded by a good supply of healthful food at low cost, while also enjoying the satisfactions of a family project—one in which both adults and youngsters can share.
Have you had the pleasure of forking up the soft earth of the garden to discover the clean, rounded tubers still strung to the plant? When you were a child, did mother ever ask you to go fetch a bucket of potatoes for dinner? It was a pleasant chore. Off you would go to the garden, through the bars of the improvised gate, the earth cool to your bare feet.
The fork was probably where you left it last time, stuck in the ground. You would insert the fork well back from the root area of the plant and ease the tines deep into the loosened soil and then lift. Out rolled the “apples of the earth.” A few more times, and you soon had enough for the day’s meal.
On the Dinner Table
Your next rendezvous with the potatoes was when you were called to the dinner table—perhaps a plateful of baked potatoes, steaming hot. You broke the paper-thin jacket, releasing the steam and the inviting aroma. A little dab of butter in the midst of the contents, and you were ready for the real taste treat.
No need for the family ever to get bored even though the humble potato features on the menu every day. Any good cookbook will offer a variety of recipes under such headings as “Boiled,” “Baked,” “Scalloped,” “Fried,” as well as a variety of salads. Other recipes, challenging to the cook, but delightful to the diner, include “Potato Croquettes,” and many more.
Of course, the simplest method is to boil your potatoes. Scrub them well in water, pare off any bruises or surface irregularities, otherwise leaving the skins on. Place in a saucepan with enough water to cover them, add salt and boil until tender—twenty to thirty minutes. A sharp fork can soon test their tenderness. Drain off the water, remove the cover and dry over heat, shaking the saucepan gently Even the skins of potatoes prepared in this manner are quite palatable.
Potatoes are delicious when baked. First cut them in half crosswise rather than lengthwise. Brush the cut side with fat and place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Bake for thirty to thirty-five minutes. There are several ways of serving—with butter and chopped parsley for one, and, for another, with butter and lemon juice.
Another way of enhancing the enjoyment of baked whole potatoes is to slit them on top and insert some fried or baked sausage or some buttered onion.
Where does the potato rank in the field of nutrition? There are some who reject it because of its high content of starch. However, it should also be kept in mind that the potato is low in calories. For example, consider this comparison: one fair-size potato has about 100 calories, one doughnut, about 200.
Potatoes are a fair source of vitamin C. One medium-size baked potato has about 15 milligrams of vitamin C. The A and B vitamins are also present. Iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium are some of the mineral contributions of the potato. According to the volume The Complete Book of Food and Nutrition, by J. I. Rodale, potatoes “contain so many minerals and vitamins that they are quite capable of sustaining life over a period of time, even if no other food at all is available.”
To preserve the largest possible amount of vitamins and minerals the above authority recommends boiling potatoes in their jackets. “Pressure cooking and baking destroys only a little of these food elements,” it adds. But “paring the potatoes, then boiling them, results in a 47 per cent loss of vitamin C. Mashing such potatoes then destroys another 10 per cent.”
Just these few facts help us to appreciate why potatoes have been an important factor in the survival of entire nations, those in eastern Europe in particular.
Though grown on practically every continent and island of the sea, by far the biggest producers of potatoes are the Soviet Union and Poland—these two together accounting for 48 percent of the world output. More than fifteen million tons are produced annually in the United States.
When we get to such large production figures, of course, we are no longer talking about the little boy with the metal bucket heading for the back garden.
No, for potato production is now a large industry with sophisticated machinery for planting, digging and sorting, and requiring storage structures with carefully controlled temperature and ventilation. Biologists are continually researching the development of potatoes that will give a high yield while combining good flavor, good appearance and resistance to disease. Even now, potatoes produce more food per acre than any of the cereals.
Your Own Project
Potatoes will thrive in regions where the days are longer but not too hot, where there is plenty of moisture and moisture-retaining soil. If your climate and country approximate this description and you have a small plot of ground, why not set out your own potato patch? Forget all about the machinery that is employed in large operations. Just loosen the soil, make a furrow, drop in your “seed” and cover it with earth. If you have never planted “spuds” before, your seed is the potato itself, cut in pieces, each piece having at least one ‘eye’ or bud part.
For soil enrichment you can use stable manure, compost, seaweed or some recommended commercial fertilizer. In Newfoundland, good results have been had with kelp and a small fish called ‘capelin.’ The latter swarm on the beaches about the time when the potato plants begin to show above the ground. They are scattered over the potato patch and covered with a light layer of soil.
When the potatoes are big enough to eat, say three months after planting, they are a real treat served hot with butter or in a cold salad. You can dig them fresh from the ground as needed, or better still, send your little boy or girl with a bucket. They will love it. But allow plenty of time, for the youngster’s imagination is likely to be fired by the amazing variety of shapes and sizes in which these tubers appear.
Other Potato Points
If potato bugs turn up amid the growing plants, as they are almost sure to do, then the whole family can combine their efforts to brush off these pests into paper containers for burning. This must be done at the first sign of the intruders, otherwise the plants will be destroyed and the potatoes will fail to mature. In large operations the potato plants are periodically sprayed to keep down the bugs.
When the time arrives for harvesting and storing the crop for winter use, the whole family can enjoy the pleasure of working cooperatively. Usually this is after the first light frost in temperate regions when the plants and leaves have dried up. Sorting can be done with a view to storing good, solid, larger-size potatoes, setting others apart for early use.
For potatoes to last well throughout the winter, the storage temperature should be a cool forty degrees Fahrenheit or thereabouts. If cooler, it may produce an undesirable sweetness of flavor; if much warmer, it could result in sprouting and shriveling of the potatoes. Darkness, some moisture and circulation of air are also desirable for storage. Thus excess moisture is removed and heat from the living potatoes is dispersed.
For your bag of seed potatoes you may receive a return of five, six, seven or even more bags, depending on the length of the season, the soil and the cooperation by family members in keeping down the bugs and weeds. But this reduction of food cost is only a fraction of the benefit resulting from such a project. There is, too, the real pleasure and sense of cooperative accomplishment experienced by young and old alike. How much more healthful to be digging for your dinner than to ride down to the store to buy that half bushel of potatoes!