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Potatoes are forever

By R.W. Apple Jr.

Burbank russets, known today to most Americans simply as Idahos, proved to be ideal for baking, mashing and for making french fries.

WISCONSIN MEANS cheese, Florida means oranges, Texas means beef, Maine means lobsters — and Idaho means potatoes. Not just any old spuds. Not Yukon Golds or Finns or Red Blisses, but long, burly, starchy, thick-skinned russets, a variety developed from a mutant Early Rose potato that the great plantsman, Luther Burbank, discovered in his New England garden in 1872.

Ensuing experiments lasted almost 40 years, but Burbank russets, known today to most Americans simply as Idahos, proved to be ideal for baking, mashing and, crucially in this fast-food era, for making french fries. With cool nights, warm days, volcanic soil, low rainfall and ample water for irrigation, Idaho proved to be the ideal place to grow them.

Here in the flatlands along the Snake River in south-eastern Idaho, 100 miles west of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and the Teton range, farmers like Richard Polatis, many of them descendants of Mormon pioneers, grow potatoes on huge spreads. Mr. Polatis, 56, farms 10,000 acres, with 1,800 acres in potatoes and the rest in wheat, barley and sugar beets, in the same area where his grandparents homesteaded.

The potato is still king in Idaho, which in a good year produces 20 billion pounds of tubers, close to a third of the American total and enough to give three pounds to every person on the planet. A local company still makes a chocolate-covered candy bar with a marshmallow centre called the Idaho Spud.

``This is the potato state,'' insists 94-year-old J.R. Simplot, the grand old man of the industry. ``We led the parade. We still do.''

But times are changing. Only 15 years ago, there were about 1,600 potato farmers in the State; now there are no more than half that many, according to Mel Anderson, the retired president of the Idaho Potato Commission. Growing spuds, once one of the more rudimentary agricultural activities, has gone high-tech in recent decades, and high-tech inevitably means high cost.

"From time to time, potatoes are a big money crop, but not consistently," Mr. Simplot said. "In 1976, we had a flood. In 1984, we had a bad early frost. In 1993, we had hollow heart — that's a disease that leaves a hole in the centre of the potato. In 1996, we had a record harvest, and the prices crashed. But this year we've got a drought, which means a smaller crop and therefore higher prices."

The industry has other things on its mind besides the weather. Diet, for one. Increasingly vocal campaigners against trans fats have cast a new pall over the much-loved french fry, so McDonald's is pushing salads, and sales of fries are slumping. Calorie counters and Atkins adherents are increasingly wary of baked potatoes as well. At the same time, competition from other producers is increasing. Some farms in eastern Washington produce even more potatoes per acre than farms in Idaho, and the relatively weak Canadian dollar has led big U.S. processors to invest north of the border.

As bite-size carrots and pre-cut salads have come to play a larger role in supermarkets, and exotic types and colours of potatoes have won shelf space, the workaday Idaho has remained, well, the same old workaday Idaho, essentially unchanged in nearly a century.

Another constant is the competition for water. Currently it pits farmers, who use water from the Snake River for irrigation, against environmentalists, who want more water downstream to help the struggling salmon population, and power interests, who want more water for hydroelectric plants.

Burbank russets, as commonplace as they may be, also deserve a place in the tuber hall of fame. "When baked," write Roy Finamore and Molly Stevens in their "One Potato, Two Potato" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), "their large starch granules swell up and separate, becoming ethereally light and fluffy. When cut into sticks and fried, high-starch potatoes become crisp on the outside and light on the inside, because what little moisture there is inside is quickly forced out as the fries sizzle in hot fat. Starchy potatoes are also great for mashing because their floury texture renders them smooth and not lumpy."

Baked potatoes are the farmhouse favourites in Idaho. One farmer's wife warned me sternly never to wrap a russet in foil or anything else for baking, because it would steam, making the flesh soggy. A second instructed me never to try substituting the microwave for the oven, unless I like a limp, insipid skin. And a third served me just-dug bakers for lunch convincing me once and for all that fresher is better.

Boise, the Idaho state capital, is as remote from other urban centres as any city of its size (165,000) in the United States. Yet it produced no fewer than three corporate empire-builders: Joe Albertson, Harry Morrison, and Mr. Simplot. It was the frozen french fry that made Mr. Simplot a billionaire. — New York Times News Service

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