Potato Use: All About America’s Favorite Vegetable

article image
iStockphoto.com/More Pixels
The cheeseburger is made complete with a side order of french fries.

“You want fries with your burger?” Well, yes, actually, I do. And a baked potato with my steak, mashed potatoes with my pot roast, a bag of chips with my sandwich, and hash browns with my morning eggs. I’m highly in favor of potato use.

Mashed, hashed, baked, flaked, chipped, boiled or fried, we Americans love our spuds. More potatoes are consumed in the United States than any other vegetable, with each of us eating an average of 125 pounds of the tasty tubers each year. According to those statistic-loving folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that adds up to about one potato per person per day.

Potatoes, you might say, run in my family. Back during the Depression years, when the market price for field corn dropped as low as 8 cents a bushel, my grandfather decided he could make more money growing potatoes. After all, he reasoned, folks who were struggling to feed their families could still afford 18 cents for a 10-pound bag of potatoes. My granddad bought a planter, excavated a dugout potato cellar on his farm, and put my mother and her sisters to work cutting potatoes into seed pieces. Over the next few years, he sold enough potatoes to buy another farm.

Potatoes are still inexpensive to buy, easy to prepare, and can be grown in nearly any garden except mine. According to dieticians, they’re also good for you. One average-sized potato contains more potassium than a banana and supplies 45 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C. They’re low in calories, high in minerals, and a good source of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, iron, niacin and vitamin B-6.

But, you say, isn’t it true that potatoes are fattening? Well, yes, Virginia, they can be, if you buy most of your potato products at a fast-food restaurant, or if you load your baked potatoes with sour cream and butter. Each year, Americans consume more than 4.5 billion pounds of french fries (including more than two billion fast-food orders), snack on 6.7 billion pounds of potatoes processed into potato chips, and consume about 75 million pounds of Tater Tots.

You can blame Thomas Jefferson for America’s love affair with french fries. He reportedly introduced them at a White House dinner in 1802, after seeing French citizens eating pomme frites sold by street vendors in Paris. Today, french fries represent about 95 percent of all frozen potato products sold in the United States. According to one estimate, McDonald’s sells enough french fries each year to account for approximately 7 percent of the total U.S. potato crop.

French fries are also one of our country’s hottest exports. In Japan, the largest importer of frozen fries from the United States, consumption has increased by four times over the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Potato Board. Consumption of fries has also risen by 400 percent in the past five years in Korea and tripled in Hong Kong over the last decade.

George Crum, a cook from Saratoga Springs, New York, is credited with creating potato chips in 1853, after a patron complained that his fried potatoes were sliced too thick. Crum returned to the kitchen, cut a potato into paper-thin slices and fried them in hot oil, thereby inventing an indispensable ingredient of the American lunchbox. Today, we consume an average of 19.3 pounds of potato chips per person per year.

Tater Tots were invented in 1951 by F. Nephi Grigg, who, with his brother, Golden, founded Ore-Ida. The Griggs started out manufacturing french fries, which involves cutting potatoes into long rectangular slices, leaving shavings that were, at the time, sold for livestock feed. Nephi decided to grind the shavings and mix them with spices, thereby producing deep-fried potato nuggets. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the years, the road from the potato field to the dinner table has been filled with achievers like Luther Burbank, who developed the first blight-resistant potato, and Herman Lay, who, in 1932, founded the first nationally marketed potato chip brand.

One of the most successful potato entrepreneurs was an Idaho farm boy named J.R. Simplot, who quit school at age 14 to work as a potato sorter in a packing shed. He soon saved enough money to rent 40 acres of potato ground and begin raising hogs. In the coming decades, he invested in potato equipment, farms and warehouses, feedlots and fertilizer plants, and potato and onion processing plants. During the 1960s, he became friends with a fellow named Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, and went on to become the single largest supplier of frozen french fries to the world’s largest fast-food chain.

So, is there any room left for one more potato entrepreneur? I’m thinking of launching a line of potato gift boxes, sort of a spud version of those fancy gift boxes of fruit. In fact, I’ve already done the test marketing.

You see, as a magazine journalist, I’ve had the unique opportunity to visit and write articles about potato growers across the country. One memorable fall a few years ago, I spent a week interviewing potato growers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, then traveled to New England the following week to interview potato growers around Presque Isle, Maine.

Sometimes I bring my wife a souvenir from my trips. During my trip to the Pacific Northwest, I decided to bring her … potatoes. I packed my travel bag with two of the biggest potatoes I could find from a field in Washington State, then added two more from a farm in Idaho. When I presented them to her the weekend after I returned home, she was … well, I guess you could say she was amused.

If my first gift of potatoes amused her, then the giant-sized spuds I brought back a week later from northern Maine left her practically speechless. They were monsters, about two pounds each, big enough that each potato produced a filling meal for two.

You think $10 is too much to pay for one of my fancy gift boxes, a sampler of eight perfectly matched potatoes? After all, they’d be wrapped in gold foil. Perhaps we could create a special, half-baked holiday. 

Jerry Schleicher is a country writer and cowboy poet in Parkville, Missouri, who savors a bowl of potato soup on a cold winter’s day.