Flying Sky-High with Mr. Potato Head

I was buckling into my seat, bound for Kosovo. It was the morning of my 30th birthday, and I was going to live for three months in a foreign country, where I didn’t speak the language or have the ability to digest their local foods, made almost entirely of gluten. I was THRILLED.  I was living my wanderlust dream.  My seat-mate decided takeoff was the perfect time to talk potatoes.

“I bet you guessed the potato originated Ireland?” he chuckled. I murmured that, indeed, I had NEVER given passing thought about where the potato originated, and looked more closely for my escape route, the one the flight attendant promised me would be lit in case of emergency. It was not lit.

We flew 9 hours to Heathrow together, the Potato Man and I. I learned that the potato actually originated in Peru, indigenous to the Andes, which confirms. The Inca Indians cultivated potatoes around 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC, and only in the 1500s were they introduced to Europe. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced them to Ireland in 1589.

My seat-mate

I wish I hadn’t been so absorbed with the launch of my 30s, that I hadn’t simply been envisioning my seat-mate as Mr. Potato Head, and popping out his mouth so he’d leave me in silence. That I might have paid closer attention to what the Potato Man had to say, and why he so badly wanted to say it. People who are passionate about what might seem mundane often reveal fascinating lessons in conversation, gems of wisdom even they didn’t know they had.

Take the potato, for instance. There is an International Potato Center blog that highlights potato farms all over the world that are helping to ease hunger. There are debates on cold storage, and, of course, Monsanto’s role in genetically modifying the vegetable.  When a disease swept over the potato crop in 1840s Ireland, they experienced what is known as the Irish Potato Famine, destroying families and communities. Understanding Evolution over at Berkeley reminds us that “because Ireland was so dependent on the potato, one in eight Irish people died of starvation in three years during the Irish potato famine.” The site discusses the dangers of a crop with a low genetic variation that can lead to such disaster.

Check out this episode of Al Jazeera’s “earthrise,” and travel with Russell Beard to Peru, where “a meeting of old knowledge and new science is safeguarding the future of the world’s favorite vegetable,” see the world’s largest collection of potatoes, and witness a local festival celebrating the potato in the Sacred Valley of the Andes.

And a typical American eats 127 pounds of them each year or about one spud per day, according to The Saturday Evening Post.

So. The Solanum tuberosum. It’s NOT as boring a subject as I first thought my potato-prattling seat-mate to be. And they taste far yummier straight from your backyard than the store shelf. Will you plant potatoes in your garden?  If you live where the ground freezes, the Farmer’s Almanac recommends you plant the seeds zero to two weeks after the last spring frost. Organic Gardening offers seven ways to plant your potatoes, from hilled rows in the ground to containers and grow bags.

How will you grow yours?  How will you prepare them for Thanksgiving? And, will you pay more attention to the mudane story-teller buckled up beside you on your next flight? Tell us in the comments or on Twitter: @TheCityFarm and @RebeccaSnavely.

(Photo: Mr. Potato Head slims down, c/o TIME;  Growing Red, White & Blue Potatoes – Saturday Evening Post)