The history of potato farming in Connecticut is long and well established. Beginning in 1845,over a million Irish immigrated to America in order to escape the Great Hunger – the potato famine that decimated Ireland and her people. A good number of those new immigrants moved to Connecticut; between1845 and 1850, the state’s Irish-born population soared from 5,000 to 26,700. This number would double in the next decade. Under the care of Irish farmers, the fertile fields of Connecticut soon began to produce bountiful crops of potatoes. In 1944, Sub Edge cultivated 50+ acres of potatoes that were sold to restaurants and hotels in Hartford and Manhattan. Some of the places buying Sub Edge potatoes were the Henry Hudson Hotel, the Towers Hotel, the Harvard Club, the Columbia Club and the National Potato Chip Company.
Potatoes are one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops. Originating in Peru sometime around 8000 BC, the tough tubers were popular as they were easy to cultivate, withstood cold well, and provided good sustenance to the people who ate them.
Potatoes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish Explorers who brought them back around 1570. At first, these lumpy balls of dirt were eschewed by most. After all, they were a member of the nightshade family and some folks had experienced some nasty run ins with plants of this sort. One bright entrepreneur got the idea to market the purported aphrodisiac qualities of the potato - what else as a sure way to get people to try a veggie with a skeptical reputation?
Despite it’s fledgling acceptance as a food source, the potato still had a long row to hoe (sorry) to gain a foothold in the politics of early European land rights. Most landowners allowed only wheat to be grown on their open fields. That didn’t stop the peasant farmers from planting the banned tubers in small vegetable plots near their homes. It wasn’t until marauding invaders quickly slashed down all of the easy-to-harvest wheat that the wealthy landowners started to see value in the less-accessible potato crops. After all, it was hard work to get at those potatoes, and any self-respecting crop robber would probably look for easier food to swipe.
For all its bounty, the potato has also caused some of the biggest problems as well. Take the instance of a gift from Sir Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth I. Old Walt brought her back a potato plant as a travel souvenir and she quickly sent it to the kitchen to be served up as part of an exotic dinner for her friends. Problem was, her cooks had no idea what they were doing and they prepared the leaves and stems for the guests of honor. Wasn’t too long after that the party goers discovered that the naturally occurring alkaloids in the potato greens were toxic. That was the end of potatoes at in her court – they were banned for quite some time to come. (Note to modern day consumers: do not buy or eat potatoes that have a green skin. That green suggests the potato was harvested to early and the alkaloids may give you a good belly ache.)
The Irish are probably best known for the high price paid to the almighty potato. By the 1800’s, nearly every Irish family had a potato garden. That and a cow could humbly support an Irish family throughout the long cold winters. Unfortunately, the world was to learn a hard lesson about crop diversity and blight. When there’s only one kind of vegetable, and a terrible blight hits, all is lost. Between 1845 and 1852 nearly a million Irish people starved to death watching their potato crops wither up right under their hungry eyes.
Fortunately, the world has changed, as has the practice of putting all your eggs in one basket – farming wise. Today, potatoes are the 4th largest crop cultivated in world (behind wheat, corn and rice). That’s a lot of potatoes to dig!
Potatoes are often vilified as a starchy vegetable that causes weight gain. In reality, it’s not the completely the potato that causes the calories; rather the way the potato is prepared. Fried, smothered in butter, mashed with cream; sometimes the potato tastes too darn good for its own good. But take heart; there are many ways to enjoy potatoes without all of the extra fat.
If you’re a mashed potato fan, try reducing the butter and mashing the potato with skim milk or even vegetable or chicken broth. You’ll want to reduce the quantity of liquid a little, but honestly? The taste might even be better than the high-fat traditional dish. A slightly more tangy, but still yummy technique is to mash the potato with plain, non-fat yogurt. Loaded baked potato fan? Try skipping the sour cream and adding a dollop of yogurt instead. Add broccoli and lemon juice for a bright taste alternative. Roasted potato fan? Skip the heavy oil coating and drizzle your potatoes with a little olive oil. A favorite roasted potato in our household is called a Hassleback potato. This takes a little time, but the beautiful little potato fans really dress up an otherwise ordinary meal.
To answer the age old question – to eat the peel or not? Whenever possible, try to keep that peel on. It does contain quite a bit of the nutritional value of the vegetable. If you are making mashed potatoes, boil the potatoes with the skin on then use a potato ricer (or paring knife) to remove the skins after they have cooked. Baked potatoes? The skin is the best part! All they need is a good scrub to remove the dirt that’s been left on (on purpose – it helps keep the potatoes fresh) for a spud that’s going to be hard to beat!