June 2010 Reflection

“I think I’ve to cut back on my potato intake.” These are the words of an Irishman, not just any Irishman but one who takes his passion for potatoes to new heights. On most nights for the past year, Sean, one of my two roommates, burned a steak on the frying pan and mashed four massive potatoes that were subsequently piled in mountainous form on two-thirds of his specially designated potato plate. Somehow he was able to squeeze his nuked beef meat, a small pot of microwaved frozen vegetables, and a tiny tin of Heinz baked beans on his potato plate, but how he managed such a feat will remain a mystery to me. When his standard fare bored him, Sean reheated approximately two tons of his mother’s stew in the microwave, a device that was thereafter rendered Out of Order. As the stew bubbled, mashed potatoes spewed over the edges of his potato plate in Eyjafjallajökull style. Just as European airspace was closed temporarily after each Icelandic eruption, so too was the microwave in Victoria Lodge #56 when Sean’s stew took on heat.

Initially, I met Sean’s love for potatoes with timidity. I had never been terribly fond of the spud and preferred to it the sweet potato or yam. Although my first reaction was quiet amazement (and staring), I quickly changed tactics and began heckling. It is only in retrospect that I can say that my reactions were rooted in fear of the spud; upon my arrival in Ireland, I was not ready to face their starchy blandness. My relatively extensive background in nutrition led me to consider the potato purely in the context of the few nutrients it provides, namely complex carbohydrates like those found in refined white bread and, should the skin be eaten as well, modest amounts of vitamins B and C. Although it is widely said that one can survive on just potatoes and Guinness, the former is probably added only for the purposes of providing bulk and substance.

In viewing the potato with this perspective, however, I was inadvertently overlooking the potato’s cultural and historical contexts. Sean’s heaps of potatoes represented not just sustenance but also a connection among current and past generations of Irish people. Although most people probably are not cognizant of this facet of the potato, the importance of the potato in the current Irish identity is incontrovertible. Ireland remains famous for the potato, not just because of the famine years two centuries prior but also because the island is internationally recognized as a potato-loving country. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the potato famine was responsible for fostering the family-oriented social networks that are still characteristic of Ireland today. There may be some merit to this argument. From an anthroposocial perspective, food has always been and will likely always remain a central element of our social lives. When food is scarce, a natural human tendency is to protect food security for oneself and one’s family. The degree of the potato’s importance in shaping Irish culture is debatable, but that the potato was an important factor is not.

With this realization, my intrigue for the tuber grew. Perhaps my perspective of the bland, starchy vegetable was tainted and needed refreshing. In my opinion, one of Cork’s greatest features is the Olde English Market, an indoor standing farmers’ market with local fare, and it was to this venue that I turned to reorient my relationship with the potato. At the western entrance of the English Market is a stand with an array of fruits and vegetables that out-competes even the nearby Dunnes Stores and Big Tescos. There I found half a dozen varieties of locally grown potatoes, from the waxy red Irish potato to the baby golden Russet. With some of each stuffed in my backpack, I returned home and placed them on the counter above Sean’s 7.5 kg bag of potatoes, all of which he devours in the course of two weeks, save the brown paper bag (although sometimes I wonder because, firstly, I never saw the bag in the bin and, secondly, Sean is a superb eater and could readily handle the fiber).

When Sean muttered the words that now form the first line of this reflection, I was cooking some of the local potatoes from the English Market. Although his knowledge of the potato is proportionately small in comparison to his consumption of the tuber, his absolute knowledge of the crop is far greater than that of the average person.

“You better trim the sprouts, Jonny,” said Sean as I was rinsing my russets.

“What?” I responded. Sean is from Waterford, and I can hardly understand the man when he speaks quickly.

“They are so small, though. What’s the difference?”

“When the potato sprouts, it starts to produce neurotoxins that accumulate in your body.”

“So is the toxin produced in just the sprouts or the whole potato?” Sean is a biochemist, like myself, so we often celebrate our nerdiness while in the kitchen.

“Well, I can’t be too sure of that fact, but those sprouts should not find their way into your pot.”

Off came the sprouts, but I left the skin on my potatoes because they are much more nutrient rich than the interior. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best plan I’ve had because the toxins produced by the potato are most concentrated in the proteinacious layer just under the skin. The sprouts of the tuber and the leaves and fruits of the potato plant are the main toxin producers, but it’s unclear whether the toxin is distributed throughout the subcutaneous layer of the potato tuber or in localized areas underneath the sprouts. The most precautious step would have been to remove the skin entirely, but my knowledge of the situation at the time was too sparse to have made such a judgment. So let it be said now that a sprouting potato should probably be completely skinned, even though potato toxin-induced illness is exceedingly rare.

That potatoes produce toxins makes the plant, in my mind, much more interesting. Over the past several millennia, humans have used plants that produce biologically active substances for medicinal and recreation purposes. This tradition is represented just outside the Blarney Castle, where a poisonous plant garden contains a wide variety of toxin-producing greenery. Perhaps the potato deserves a plot. Now that I have returned to the United States, I find myself craving the spud and curious to experience the nearly 4,000 varieties grown throughout the world. And when I bite into a properly cooked potato, a food that is sometimes a challenge to find in Philadelphia, I do so with a deeper appreciation for the superficially simple vegetable. Its history, its cultural influence, its worldwide consumption, its taste, and its biochemistry come together on a plate in such a subtle manner that we almost invariably overlook its complexity.

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