May 2020. As a dedicated spudnut, I save potatoes for next year’s seed. This year I planted Pink Fir Apples, Amarosas, Kennebecs, German Butterballs, Linzer Delikatess, Yukon Golds, Norlands and Purple Vikings. When I dig the first crop, it’s a sign that we’ll be eating spud dishes of all sorts: boxty, champ, shepherd’s pie, colcannon, kugel, latkes, Parmentier, rosti, scalloped, pavé, spudnuts, frites, Anna, bubble and squeak, gnocchi, croquettes, duchesse, chips.
First grown by the Peruvian Incas, potatoes were transported to the Old World in1570 by the Spanish Conquistadores as part of the cultural appropriation that accompanied invasion. But the new vegetables were reviled by Europeans fearful of their nightshade family tree, with cousins including eggplant and tomatoes, but also deadly mandrake and belladonna, and so were grown initially as animal fodder.
It took advocates like Antoine-August Parmentier to make spuds acceptable. Parmentier was a socially conscious chef and medical officer who also enforced smallpox vaccination among Napoleon’s troops. He became a staunch advocate for potatoes after he survived on them in a Prussian prison camp during the Seven Years War (1756-63). He later planted potatoes on his estates near Paris: to create potato cachet, he posted guards during the day, but removed the guards nightly so Parisians could “steal” the plants to grow in their own gardens. His influence endures in French dishes bearing his name as indicators that they contain potatoes. In an ironic moment of food history, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the royal gardens, the Tuileries, were converted to potato fields.
Potatoes migrated to North America in the 1770s. American inventor Ben Franklin attended a “potato feast” cooked by Parmentier for the French king, Louis XIV, who wore a potato flower boutonnière. Franklin subsequently carried seed potatoes home. His colleague, Thomas Jefferson, served as American Minister to France, and one of his slaves, James Hemings, studied to be a chef while they were in Paris. Later, at the White House, Hemings served finely cut potato pieces cooked in hot oil. Et voila: French fries.
It’s amazing that the potato is even eaten in Ireland after the Potato Famine of 1845-51. At that point, Irish Catholics could not own or lease land, so were reduced to tenant farmers and poverty, eating one variety of potato, the Lumper; the Corn Laws made wheat unaffordable, and dairy, fish and cattle were exported en masse to England. But an ecological disaster made a bad situation worse. A plant pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, wiped out the Lumper crop, turning tasty taties into rotting slime. A million Irish died of starvation and a million more fled, mostly for The New World. Thus my potato-loving paternal ancestors became settlers in what would be known as Treaty 3 Territory, the Between the Lakes Territory, Upper Canada, or southern Ontario.
In what became known as Alberta, Daniel Harman, agent for the Northwest Trading Company, mentioned in his journals the harvest of the first potatoes seeded in 1810 near Dunvegan. Forty-three years later, the potato chip was invented in Saratoga Springs, New York. A chef, George Crum, irked when railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt sent back his potatoes for more cooking, thinly sliced the offending potatoes, fried them in oil, and sprinkled the resulting chips with salt. Vanderbilt loved them, triggering our continuing affair with potato chips.
But potatoes have better uses than chips. As my feisty Irish granny was fond of saying, spuds are best served plain, with a few added ingredients – hence latkes, boxty, pommes Anna, or champ. So first we eat, then we’ll swap recipes.
This is one of those deceptive dishes that elevate its few ingredients. It’s also good for practicing your knife skills. Choose uniform oval potatoes – yellow-fleshed are best – of similar size. Make extra! These reheat well, uncovered, in a medium-hot oven. Serves 6
2 heads of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
chopped chives for garnish
sour cream for garnish
Set the oven at 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut off a thin slice of each potato to make a flat surface. Set the potato on its flat side and use a large sharp knife to make parallel cuts across the potato at regular intervals. Do not cut all the way through. Insert a garlic slice into each cut. Repeat with the rest of the potatoes. Transfer the potatoes to the baking sheet. Drizzle with oil, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for an hour, more if needed, basting at intervals. Serve with garnishes.