Don’t Denigrate The Potato

The USDA wants to curb school children’s spud consumption, but the tuber could still be a superweapon against global hunger

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The USDA, in a rare moment of regulatory exertion, has decided to try to limit the amount of potatoes children eat in their school lunches. The plan is to cut back on potatoes to two servings a week, as part of the less starch, more whole grain program that doctors have been trying to promote for years. I’m not unsympathetic to the difficulties facing public health officials, nor do I buy the plaintive cries of potato-producing states worrying where children will get their calcium from. The last thing American kids need today are more potatoes. But what about tomorrow?

For Americans and for most of the human race, tubers make up a good part of the calories we consume. But we take them for granted, considering them for the most part as inert and inevitable. Meanwhile, the potato is as central and secret to our culinary life as a man’s skeleton, and as difficult to run away from. Growers in Idaho and Washington planted 10% more potatoes this year than last, and there are more potatoes being grown nationwide as well. And given that Canada is having a generally crappy potato harvest, this means American spuds are riding high. In an increasingly hungry world, food production on a truly titanic scale becomes a decisive political force. In that sense, the humble potato could turn into a kind of agricultural superweapon. Hardy and rugged, and able to grow almost anywhere in any season, it can feed whole populations, and often has. The Irish potato famine was so devastating because the people had been subsisting almost entirely on these tubers; when the potato crop went bad, there was nothing left to eat. As the American economy goes into the tank, starvation and want are increasingly becoming stateside perils. So the potato, and its unsurpassed ability to provide cheap calories throughout the year, is going to be more important than ever. Which is why the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that potatoes deserve our gratitude, respect and imagination—three things they, as a staple crop, tend not to get much of in America.

(MORE: Bagels: An American Tragedy)

One of the few things we export in vast amounts to China, potatoes dehydrate well and you can ship them cheaply anywhere; they can feed the world, and in fact they do. As the global population rises, more people are going to need more potatoes to stay alive. Moreover, if, as we are so often told, the future will offer less grazing land and hence less meat, the potato will be asked to fill the gap, a starchy Atlas shouldering global hunger.

So we need to make our peace with the potato. Which means treating it right. An enormous amount of innovation has gone into potatoes over the years, but nearly all of it has been for commercial and food-service applications. Chefs and home cooks still bake, mash, boil and roast potatoes the way they did 100 years ago or, for that matter, 400 years ago. But because we take the potato for granted, we are often blind to its possibilities. Take hash browns, for example. Too often, especially in my home city of New York, hash browns take the form of old boiled or roasted potatoes that have been cut up into little pieces. These waterlogged lumps are then thrown on a griddle to brown—barely—on one side. They don’t get a nice crust, and they’re usually not good for much beyond absorbing runny eggs. Their steakhouse cousins, meanwhile, rarely taste of anything other than butter. Potatoes grow in the dark and in some ways they continue to exist there, always overshadowed by sour cream or bacon or salty crunch. This is going to have to change; there is less meat and more hash on the horizon, and everybody needs to step up their treatment of this noblest of nature’s gifts.

It can be done. British culinary genius Heston Blumenthal, in my friend Melanie Dunea’s My Last Supper: The Next Course, named as his kiss-off meal roast potatoes, and included a recipe so simple and wonderful that everyone who tried it collectively face-palmed. The potatoes are quartered, then obsessively rinsed, then boiled until they’re almost ready to fall apart; then they are drained and roasted in olive oil. The results are astonishing. The interior is creamy, and there are multiple dimensions of crunch, as microfissures from the boiling open up avenues to the oil deep into every inch of the potato. And yet somehow they’re not greasy. The “supersonic” french fries created at Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine food lab outside Seattle achieve a similar result through elaborate treatment with multiple technologies; who knew that you could do it at home with a pot and a colander? More importantly, why did it take Heston freaking Blumenthal to figure out how to make a simple roast potato? I find this mind-blowing. The culinary world needs to take potatoes as seriously as they do, say, ramen noodles. Potatoes taste better, and they might just save the world.