Aliens used a mound of mashed potatoes to communicate with actor Richard Dreyfuss in the classic 1977 sci-fi film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg first bonded over whipping big bowls of mashed potatoes, resulting in the quirkiest culinary duo to ever appear on food TV. (Snoop added a splash of cognac to his.)

Mashed potatoes are a cultural touchstone that helps hold us together, especially at Thanksgiving. They are a nonpartisan vegetable. To turn them away feels wrong, even unpatriotic. There will be no carb-watching on Nov. 22, when family and friends dig into huge, fluffy piles of creamy goodness, bits of melting butter still seeping down the sides. A body can take only so much self-denial.

Slightly lumpy or silky smooth? Skim milk or heavy cream? Those conundrums may solve themselves if you start with the right potato. Maine potato farmers say the best, creamiest mashed potatoes are made with the round, white varieties, which contain more moisture than mealy-prone russets. Others swear by yellow potatoes, the ones that look as if Mother Nature has already added a little fat.

This year Mainers will have a new tuber to try. It’s called Cold River Gold, and it will appear later this week in Hannaford supermarkets. Grown by Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, it’s the same potato a number of Portland chefs prefer for its creamy texture and good flavor. It’s used to make those wildly popular Duckfat fries and Noble BBQ’s twice-fried scrappy fries. Figgy’s Take-Out & Catering in Portland’s West End mashes them, and Bolley’s Famous Franks in Waterville uses the Cold River Golds to make fries, whether crinkle cut or straight cut.

Ryan Carey, owner of Noble BBQ, worked with the Green Thumb Farms potatoes when he was at Nosh Kitchen Bar in Portland, and picked the same variety when he opened his Forest Avenue barbecue restaurant. When turned into french fries, he said, the potatoes get “a really nice crisp on the outside and kind of a gooey flavor on the inside.”

Other potato varieties come out of the fryer looking too dark, or even burned, he said, but the Green Thumb Farms potatoes stay golden brown. And they stay crispy, even after Ryan loads them down with baked beans, meat scraps and all the other toppings for his “scrappy fries.”

For the first time, consumers will be able to buy the Cold River Gold potato and cook it themselves.

Mike Hart, director of sales and marketing at Green Thumb Farms, says Cold River Gold potatoes are not starchy, so they won’t taste mealy or break apart and turn to mush in soups. Rub them whole in olive oil and a little sea salt before baking, and the skin stays crisp while the insides are like mashed potatoes, he said.

For the people who grow them, the Cold River Gold is the “mandated potato for Thanksgiving by all family members,” says Brenda Thibodeau, whose husband, Don, is president of Green Thumb Farms.

“If we substituted it with anything,” she said, “we’d have mutiny on our hands.”

1 Potato, 2 potato, 3 potato, 4

Mashed potatoes have become as essential a part of the Thanksgiving meal as the turkey, but they weren’t on the table at the first Thanksgiving. Potatoes arrived in North America in 1621, the same year the Pilgrims and Native Americans shared what’s considered the first Thanksgiving together, when the governor of Bermuda shipped two large cedar chests of potatoes and other vegetables to the governor of Jamestown. Potatoes were brought into northern Maine through Canada in the 1700s by immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, according to Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board in Presque Isle.

The first modern mashed potato recipe was published in “The Art of Cookery” by Hannah Glasse in the 18th-century, and called for 2 pounds of potatoes, a pint of milk and a quarter-pound of butter.

Fast-forward two or three centuries to Thanksgiving 2018, and that recipe hasn’t changed much. But American potatoes have. Farmers and agronomists have developed hundreds of varieties of potatoes since Glasse published her recipe for cooking whatever variety people ate back then. (No one knows.) Cold River Gold is the brand name you’ll see on the 5-pound bags of potatoes that Hannaford will be selling for $4.49. The variety is called Norwis.

Few ordinary consumers are familiar with varieties of potatoes, although if you count the potatoes still in trials, Maine farmers grow well over 100, according to Flannery. These varieties fall into the four broad categories – russet, red, yellow and white – that are typically sold in grocery stores, Flannery said.

Varieties come and go over the years, for a variety of reasons, including consumer acceptance, yield, susceptibility to disease, and ease of processing. Flannery recalls a white potato variety named Green Mountain that was popular when he was a kid. “It really had a unique flavor, but it was the ugliest thing that you ever saw in your life,” he said.

Green Mountain was versatile, but didn’t give farmers the kind of yield they wanted. It bruised easily, too.

Another flash in the pan was the Irish cobbler, an early potato harvested in late July and early August, “but it had issues as far as yield and consumer acceptance,” Flannery said. “Back 30 years ago, consumers started buying a lot with their eyes. They wanted pretty potatoes.”

Over time, researchers develop new varieties to take over a disappointing spud’s place in the produce aisle. Remember when Yukon Gold potatoes were all the rage? They had yellow flesh, pink eyes and a buttery texture and taste that appealed to consumers. Turns out Yukon Golds had some issues – light yields, susceptibility to disease, and they didn’t store long – so most Maine farmers have moved on. But demand is still there for yellow potatoes, so researchers at Cornell University are working a cross between a Yukon Gold and a Keuka Gold that has better yield and stores well. Fewer than 20 acres of the new cross are being grown in Maine, Flannery said, adding that he expects it to be released for production in three to five years.

“They’re always trying to build a better mousetrap,” Flannery said.

Pilgrim Schmilgrim

Judy Kenney and her husband, Maylen, of M&M Farms in Castle Hill, a so-called table-stock farm in Aroostook County potato country, are retired now, but they grew Yukon Golds before they sold off parts of their farm to growers who produce potatoes for potato chip and french fry processors. Kenney still prefers Yukon Gold for her Thanksgiving mashed potatoes.

“My grandson calls them heavenly cloud potatoes because they’re so creamy,” Kenney said.

Kenney said Maine has fewer table-stock growers than in the past, partly because of competition from other potato-growing states and Canada.

Forty years ago, 65 percent of potato growers in Maine were table-stock growers, 20 percent grew seed potatoes, and 15 percent sold their potatoes to processors. Today, those numbers have flipped: 65 percent of Maine growers sell to processors, and only 15 percent grow for the table-stock market. The percentage growing seed potatoes hasn’t budged.

“I think it’s too bad that there aren’t more” table-stock growers,” Kenney said. “It was a way of life for us and our family for a long time, for us and our neighbors. But things change.”

Modern demographics and shifting consumer preferences have also brought changes to the potato industry, Flannery said. As other states increased their potato production, they nibbled away at Maine’s niche in the round, white potato market. Maine growers found more financial stability planting potatoes for makers of chips and fries. At the same time, consumer demand shifted toward russet, red and yellow potatoes.

Flannery notes that families once bought a 50-pound bag of potatoes every month because they ate potatoes four to five times a week. Then families got smaller, and America’s eating habits started to change. People eat out more now, and they’ve grown fond of global cuisines that rely on noodles and rice. That 50-pound bag of potatoes became a 20-pound bag, and now it’s rare to find even a 10-pound bag in grocery stores.

People still can get excited about potatoes, though. Consider the Caribou Russet, a variety developed at the University of Maine and released to the public two years ago this month. It’s a nice-looking potato, good for both baking and mashing, and it works well for processing to boot.

“We rolled it out, and they put it in Hannaford and Tradewinds, and it flew off the shelf,” Flannery said.

The 8-pound bags of Caribou Russets sold so well in Hannaford stores that Irving Farms in Caribou expanded its acreage this year so the company can stock the potatoes in all of its stores, according to Eric Blom, a spokesman for Hannaford Supermarkets.

Valorie Flewelling is a fan. Her family grows potatoes destined to become fries and chips on Flewelling Farms in Easton, but for baked or mashed potatoes at home, she prefers the Caribou Russets. (The farm is growing a few of them, too.)

“Everybody has their own opinion about them,” she said, “but I think they’re just a little moister and a little more flavorful.”

The Thibodeau family hopes their Cold River Golds will be just as popular. The potato, developed for Frito-Lay, was known in the 1960s as FL657 – all varieties start their lives as a number. But it didn’t do well in field trials. Its starch and sugar content weren’t the best for making chips, it didn’t store well, and Frito-Lay eventually dropped it.

Farms elsewhere in the country have tried growing the potatoes, with no luck. But there is something about the sandy soils and the microclimate of the Mount Washington Valley that the Norwis loves. Summers are warmer in the valley, which means a longer growing season than the rest of Maine. The potatoes can be planted earlier than they could in Aroostook County, and stay in the ground longer, allowing them more time to mature and absorb nutrients. When it’s dry in the rest of the state, Mount Washington brings the valley beneficial rains. The result is a creamy, versatile potato that chefs were the first to discover.

“It’s pretty highly sought after on the food service side of things, and that’s really where most of these have gone in the past,” Hart said.

In the Thibodeau household, the potatoes will be used on Thanksgiving to make bacon-wrapped potato balls – one of the many recipes Brenda Thibodeau is testing in her own kitchen that may end up on bags of Cold River Gold – and the family’s personal Thanksgiving favorites: garlic mashed potatoes with cheese, and mashed potatoes made with a ricer instead of being whipped so, Brenda Thibodeau says, ‘the gravy can infiltrate all of that wonderful potato.”

In other words, the Pilgrims really missed out.

 

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