Saturday, February 2, 2008

Cabinet of curiosities: Potatoes

A phenomenon of the Renaissance, cabinets of curiosities (also known as Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonder) proliferated throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Encyclopedic in approach, the cabinets emphasized the exceptional, the rare, and the marvelous, attempting to encompass the results both of God's creation (nature) and of man's (art). Collection @ the New York Public Library

''Curiosity and interest are immediately aroused when you put into a young person's hands, a potato.''
Louis Pasteur

February is Potato Lovers' Month. Living on Long Island my whole life, you would think I would know a whole lot about potatoes. Well, I do know one thing, I LOVE potatoes!!!!! There was a time on Long Island that you could see potato farms as far as the eye could see. Well, it seemed that way to me because I was very young when we moved "out here" from the "city" in 1957.

Potatoes were once the dominant crop of Long Island, grown from the heights of Brooklyn, across the fertile breadth of the Island, to the eastern ends of both forks. Both the soil and climate were congenial to the potato. New York State figures show that in 1866, the New York potato crop covered 275,000 acres, perhaps half of which was on Long Island. By 1875, potatoes became a favored money crop for many Long Island farmers especially with the development of machines for digging and planting potatoes. By the 1890s, the Long Island Railroad operated the famous "farmers’ trains" bringing wagons loaded with potatoes and other produce on railroad flatcars to New York City. This was the mainstay of the piggyback service (in which trailers are loaded onto flatcars.) In 1933, the first year Long Island figures are available, there were 43,000 acres of potatoes in Queens and Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Below is an article from the Queens newspaper the Daily Star printed in July of 1943.

Potatoes, the tuberous fruit that is Long Island’s number one vegetable crop make news all over the place one day. So scarce, that a week before, housewives paid fancy bonuses to walk out with two pounds. Now potatoes are so plentiful, you can find them dumped by the carload in Maspeth and Ridgewood. Over 100 tons of potatoes. It seems they were rejected by the Brooklyn Naval Yard as being old and starting to sprout. Another 200 tons are rotting on a Ridgewood rail siding. Joseph Ippolito, who has a contract to clean fill in the lots in question, is fined 1$ for dumping the spuds, although he said he didn’t do it. ‘I don’t know where they came from. They were dumped there by a by green truck. I did take home and cook some of the spuds. They were good.’ Lemuel Neilson is caught by the Board of Health selling potatoes. ‘I get lots of the potatoes and when other people saw what I have, they said they would give me fifty cents a bushel. I sold them and took some home to eat.’ The court asked, ‘did they make you ill?’. ‘They did not,’ he responded. ‘Case dismissed,’ said the court. source

In 1945, there were 72,000 acres of potatoes on Long Island, nearly all of them in Nassau and Suffolk. Long Island potato farmers fed the Allied troops in World War II and by the end of the war in 1945, the Long Island potato crop was worth about $30 million dollars. Perhaps, real estate developers Levitt & Sons, saw the future demise of the Long Island potato crop when they turned a Long Island potato field into the country’s first planned suburban community in 1947.

The story of Levittown begins with the story of the Hempstead Plains, sixty thousand acres of flat, treeless grasslands that was once considered the largest prairie in the eastern United States. It was here, in 1644, that a group of English colonists established Hempstead, the first permanent settlement in what later became Nassau County. Subsequently, through various grants and land deals, Hempstead was divided into territories, one of which became known as Island Trees, likely because it contained a tall group of pine trees that, from a distance, resembled an island unto itself...Island Trees' main cash crops in the late 1800s were cabbage and cucumbers, until a severe blight hit the area in 1912 and farmers shifted their attention to potato farming. Island Trees soon became the center of potato farming in Nassau County. But then, in the mid 1930s, farmers in the area suddenly began to experience serious potato crop damage brought on by a dreaded critter called the Golden Nematode. It was at the onset of this crisis that Abraham Levitt and his sons, Alfred and William, purchased an abandoned potato field in Island Trees at a "greatly reduced price." source

Whatever the reason, Long Island’s once great potato industry is now reduced to just a handful of growers. I'm just going to mention two so I can get onto the business of potato recipes. First, we have the North Fork Potato Chip Company and Long Island Spirits home an Ultra Premium Vodka called LiV™ (rhymes with 5) which is distilled on an 80 acre potato farm on the North Fork of Long Island. One of the many signature cocktail recipes created using LiV™ Vodka is the “Hampton Classic Cocktail.” You can find the recipe at Culinary Types. T.W. toured the recently renovated barn in Baiting Hollow, NY. in the summer of 2009.

In 1910, Martin Sidor's Polish grandfather started growing potatoes in Mattituck on Long Island's North Fork...With the help of their three children, the Sidors launched North Fork Potato Chips with a hearty chip kettle-cooked in healthy sunflower oil. website
LiV™ Vodka was born out of the passion Rich Stabile has developed over the years for wine and spirits. Growing up in an Italian household, he was exposed to the craft of wine making at an early age by helping his family crush grapes in a Brooklyn basement. His family's heritage in the beverage industry, also includes some commercial success as well...Long Island Spirits is the first Distillery on Long Island since the 1800’s and they are proud to say that LiV™ Vodka is the only Vodka that will actually be made "on" Long Island. website

All American Potatoes

“It is easy to halve the potato where there is love.”
Irish Saying

If I attempt to claim who first introduced the potato to the USA, I will certainly wind up mashed between more questions than quite frankly, I am capable of answering. I'll hit the books.

In North America, the sweet potato was know to the Indians but it wasn't until the 1620s that the white potato was brought to Virginia from England. Londonderry, New Hampshire, however, gets credit for the true "birth" of the potato in the United States. Irish settlers brought potatoes with them when they settled in Londonderry in 1719. Potatoes were so important to the Irish diet that they came to be know as "Irish" potatoes to distinguish them from sweet potatoes. The All-American Potato Cookbook (1982) (I've included two recipes. Both would be GREAT for a Super Bowl Sunday snack. (Tangy Crisp Potato Peels & Nacho Rounds)

Potatoes were slow to gain popularity. Even when they became the second largest food crop in America, they were still used primarily as animal fodder

The potato reached the shores of North America in 1621, as a gift from the Governor of Bermuda to the Governor of Virginia. It was another 100 years before the first permanent potato patches were established near Londonderry (Derry), New Hampshire, by Scotch-Irish immigrants. Potatoes slowly became a staple of the New World’s diet. While serving as the Ambassador to France in 1767, Benjamin Franklin attended a feast hosted by Parmentier, and brought home potatoes and tales of their delicious possibilities. George Washington had them planted at Mount Vernon in 1767. Thomas Jefferson was serving them at Monticello by 1772, and at the White House during his Presidency in the early 1800s. source

Oh, who am I kidding, I can't talk about potatoes without mentioning the first book to actually contain recipes for the use of potatoes. "In the early 1600s, a newly organized upper crust English scientific group, the Royal Society was determined to study the potato to see if it could be planted easily and be food for the poor. Other scientific sorts, eager to be recognized, began planting and studying the potato on their own. In 1664, a book was published dedicated to King Charles II, patron of the Royal Society." The offering goes to John Forster published in 1664. Are you ready for the title? The complete title is: England's Happiness Increased or A Sure and Easy Remedy Against all Succeeding Dear Years: by a Plantation of the Roots called Potatoes, Whereof (with the addition of wheat flower) excellent good and wholesome Bread may be made every year, eight or nine Months together, for half the change as formerly. Also by the Planting of these Roots, ten thousand men in England and Wales who know not how to Live or what to do to get a Maintenance for their Families, may of One Acre of Ground, make Thirty Pounds per Annum. Invented and Published for the Good of the Poorer Sort I may have been able to avoid it if I didn't find it online. It appears the book is now referred to as The Politics of Potatoes. Here is a passage:

Now there are diverse kinds of potatoes, all which were originally brought from America. The first sort, being those of greatest request, are the Spanish potatoes called by the Latins batata, cametes, annes, Ignanes, and Inhames. The second sort are the Virginia potatoes, called Battata, and Battatas Virginianorum, Papas, Paput, and Pappus. The third sort are the potatoes of Canada, called of the herbarists Heliotropium indicum tuberosum, Flos solis piramidalis, Aster peruvianus tuberusus; and falsely in English, "artichokes of Jerusalem." The fourth sort (which are these I shall write of in this treatise, and are fittest for our purpose) are the Irish potatoes, being little different from those of Virginia except only in the color of the flower and time of flowering, for these bring forth a white flower about the end of June and so continue flowering most part of the summer. The other (as Mr. Gerard says) do not flower until August, and bear a purple flower. These roots, although they came at first from the Indies, yet thrive and prosper very well in Ireland, where there are whole fields of them, from whence they have been brought into Wales, and into the north parts of England, where they likewise prosper and increase exceedingly. They are in quality temperate, very agreeable and amicable to the nature of man, and of a good and strong nourishment. In substance they are brittle and mealy, and therefore very fit to be put into bread and to make diverse kinds of wholesome foods as shall be shown hereafter. website

I can't ignore the French. IMHO, the most romantic interlude in the travels of the potato began in France with Frenchman, Antoine Parmentier. (Excellent French site in English) As a prisoner of war, Parmentier was nourished on potatoes. Antoine-Auguste Parmentier recognized the value of the tuberous plant and as a French chemist and agriculturist he studied it extensively. He enjoyed them so much that he gave a large dinner where the entire bill of fare was centered around potatoes served in various ways. Some say Benjamin Franklin attended. Eventually, he convinced the King to give him a tract of land. He proceeded to plant it only with potatoes. His plan was quite clever. He had Royal soldiers guard the plantation by day which arose the curiosity of the towns people. At night, the fields were left unguarded. Well, we all know what happens amongst the "forbidden fruit", exactly what Antoine Parmentier planned. Those that came to steal the plants, planted them in their own fields as curious crops. This, of course, added to the mystery of the “earth apple.” in France. The final step in Parmentier's plan included the delivery of a bouquet of potato flowers to Louis XVI at Versailles. The bouquet was graciously accepted by the King, "France will thank you some day for having found bread for the poor" Parmentier was honored. He was rewarded by having potato flowers bloom on his grave each year and is immortalized in the French potato soup, Potage Parmentier.

As I said, I'm a big fan of potatoes and I haven't even included enough recipes yet but, alas, time is running out and I am going to have leave for now. I will probably be back with some recipes for Potato Lovers' Month because I didn't get to share any of the recipes from Pennsylvania another potato producing state and where I now live. Just can't move to far from them potatoes:) Here's a scanned recipe for Potato Cinnamon Rolls in the meantime:


  • 1. The Potato Museum

    1. I did not know that Levittown was formerly a potato field. So many of the potato farms became wineries on Long Island - so at least the farmland is still being used for agricultural purposes. Great info!

    2. Hi T.W.
      After writing this blog I felt the need to take a ride out to those vineyards today. Wonderful!


    Through this wide opened gate,
    none came too early,
    none returned too late.

    Thanks for dropping in...Louise