My father liked sauerkraut on his. Uncle Pete preferred horseradish. My brother Jug ate the whole thing, skin and all, as I do.

When cooking them as an adult, he rubbed the skins in olive oil and a touch of salt. That’s fine dining.

She, who loves butter, won’t touch one without it. I prefer splitting it in two with salsa on one side and baked beans on the other, but that was then and my new “nowness” forbids anything white, so I eat the salsa and baked beans as a side.

Yes, we speak of the potato, the lowly potato that hasn’t gotten as much attention and press since the blight emptied more Irish out of Ireland than a fire in a Dublin saloon.

My mother, the daughter of John Daly and Bridget McNamara, was the master of the potato. We had them mashed, baked, fried and boiled. Aunt Winnie put them in everything. She made potato soup, potato salad and potato cakes.

Who can forget the wonderful Boy Scout cookouts when we roasted them over a fire barrel? During the depression, the potato was a lifesaver to the men “on the road.” Catholic churches in many of the cities and small towns, particularly in the potato states, handed them out in baskets to the wandering and the homeless who would gather by the railroad tracks to roast them for supper. Some say that it was potatoes, not fishes and loaves, that Jesus miraculously multiplied for the hungry. I made that one up and I like it.

Wikipedia says it nicely: The potato is a starchy, tuberous crop from the perennial Solanum tuberosum of the Solanaceae family, not to be confused with the Solanaceae family from Jersey that’s into loansharking. 

The potato played a big part in my life of course. I’m here in America and Maine-potato-land because of the tuber. Had it not been for the “oomycete phytophthora infestans” the blight that triggered the Great Potato Famine of 1845 that ran the Devines out of the Emerald Isle, I would probably be a cop or priest in Cork or Cobh to this day, rotating my time between the saloon floor and the confessional.

Now it has become political. Sweet Sen. Susan Collins — Irish, by the way — one of the Senate’s more fashionable Republicans, has been forced, as of late, to divide her attentions between matters of state and her potato feud with the Department of Agriculture.

The USDA wants to dump the potato and other starchy foods from school menus, never mind that some starches are good sources of fiber. It appears that someone named Margo Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, and I quote, “When the kids are offered french fries versus green beans and carrots, too often the kids choose french fries.” To which kids everywhere replied “Duh.”  

Of course the nutritionists are right, baked potatoes are kind of okay, but french fries are a killer. When, in my sordid past, I dined in the better burger joints, no matter what you ordered, cheeseburger, chili dog, salad or Cheerios, each plate came stacked high with deep fried fries. Anything fried is a hand grenade.

That’s enough about white potatoes. Let’s talk about the alternative: Sweet potatoes. There’s the answer for Susan and the school cooks. Maine grows sweet potatoes, bushels of them. Most people only know them as that bowl of yellow stuff topped with marshmallows Mama puts on the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Baked sweet potato fries, sliced up in long thin pieces are wonderful. You put them on a baking sheet, drip olive oil, some black pepper and touch of sea salt. You can cut them in circles, bake them longer and have sweet potato chips. Wonderful stuff that kids will love. 

A.A. Milne, who wrote, of course, “Winnie the Pooh,” said it best: “What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”


J.P. Devine is Waterville writer.

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