I went to an official tater tasting this week, hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Over the course of three hours I ate dozens of different Alaska-grown potatoes alongside strangers in the name of science. A hard task I know, but someone had to do it.
With the background hum of volunteers bustling in the kitchen, seemingly endless bowls of samples were placed before us. Red, purple-black, and bright yellow potatoes were baked, boiled, mashed and roasted. It was a veritable potato feast, with spuds of every shape and size.
The invitation said the event was BYOB -- Bring Your Own Butter -- but the Tupperware container of toppings I brought never left my bag. I sensed that if I were to slice off a pat of butter, or worse, sprinkle a pinch of salt atop my samples I would be banished to the land of novice potato-tasters. No, I had to show them what my tastebuds were made of.
So this is how I came to truly taste potatoes. With no added fats, salts or herbs, I began to notice the subtle (and often not so subtle) differences in the varieties.
I learned that not all potatoes are created equal.
Extension agents Leslie Shallcross and Julie Riley hosted the second annual Potato Lovers Bash in Anchorage last week to introduce consumers to specialty potatoes and give researchers and growers information about what people like.
Alaska seed growers selected 30 potato varieties for testing. We methodically went through eight rounds, with two to four different types in each round, and scored potatoes on flavor, aroma, appearance and texture. I have never eaten so many potatoes in one sitting.
The sweet, Alaska-bred "Magic Myrna" was the favorite last year, and as a result, Trapper Creek dentist-turned-potato grower Greg Kalal was able to sell most of his seed stock to local farmers. This year the Magic Myrna again took top honors, along with the King Edward, Red Pontiac and Bushes Peanut varieties. The Yukon Gold potato, which rose to fame after it was touted by Martha Stewart, was rated high when boiled but received zero votes when mashed.
As we've come to depend on a handful of commercial varieties of fruits and vegetables, thousands of heirloom varieties have disappeared, said Jeff Smeenk to the crowd. Smeenk is an agronomist (someone who studies soils and plant life) and district manager at the Palmer Soil and Water Conservation District. He said it's common now to see only one or two types of potatoes at the store, although thousands of varieties exist.
The starchy white potato has long (and much deservedly) been cast as one of the leading villains in our nation's obesity epidemic. President Obama and the USDA have fought to set limits on the number of times a week that white potatoes can served in school lunches, and since 2007 white potatoes have been excluded from the list of vegetable options for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vouchers. The National Potato Council lobbied heavily against both efforts to take down the Starch King.
Consumers are getting the short end of the stick in Congress's potato war. The potato section of the grocery store should be much more vibrant, with 10-15 different varieties and flavors. "Highly pigmented" potatoes, meaning red or purple ones with antioxidants and nutritional benefits, are healthier than white potatoes. The more colorful the spud, the more nutrition it has packed in it.
However, appearances are still a huge hurdle for local farmers. After the Yellow Finn was voted as a favorite, Jeff held one up, displaying an ugly crack down the side, and declared that no one would ever buy it in the supermarket. "The customer buys with their eyes. They want perfection. Flavor is still irrelevant in this industry," he said.
In the U.S. one of the most popular potatoes is the russet. Smeenk said, "Industry people give the russet a negative four (out of 10) in taste and nutrition, but because it is beautiful people will buy it."
Like most of our food, we too often pay for appearance over flavor or quality. It's time we changed that. Look for new potatoes of all colors and varieties this summer at local farmers markets, and reclaim your potato tastebuds.
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.
Food & Culture