I went to a lunch co-sponsored by the Idaho Potato Commission in New York this week and ate a lot of starch. Actually, the food was excellent—potato skins stuffed with crème fraîche and caviar (cooked by the chef of the Manhattan restaurant Back Forty) were as good an argument as any to make the case that 2012 is, as the commission asserts, the year of the potato.
But I was struck during the commission rep’s post-entrée, pre-dessert speech that for all the Idaho potato’s noble attributes (Fluffiness! Versatility! Low water content!), there really is no way to give it the sex appeal of pork belly or Sriracha; trying to do so risks sounding like self-parody. The potato is steadfastly lumpen, about as titillating as a La-Z-Boy or pledge-drive tote bag.
But Idaho is proud of its russets, and certainly lavishes enough resources on their promotion. Compared to, for example, the Georgia Peanut Commission’s rather humble website, the Idaho Potato Commission’s is a multimedia fantasia, boasting recipes, factoids, nutritional information, and promotional videos that show Denise Austin (pictured) sashaying in slo-mo through a field of russets. The potato even gets its own biography of sorts, a volume titled Aristocrat in Burlap. The commission hosts luncheons like the one I attended several times a year across the country, plying chefs with modest swag bags that include a “Foodservice Toolkit,” a calendar with monthly testimonials from chefs who are “passionate about potatoes” (“I think potato is a wonderful vehicle,” proclaims Susan Feniger), and Spuddy Buddy, a stuffed mascot that wears a T-shirt, socks, and high-tops, and is, as anthropomorphic root vegetables go, actually pretty cute.
But do we really need to be convinced of a potato’s relative hotness, much less that it’s having its very own year? Because isn’t every year more or less the year of the potato? Whether or not chefs are being paid to shout the virtues of potatoes from the mountaintop, you’d be hard-pressed to find any restaurant, high or low, that doesn’t serve at least one potato dish, and our national addiction to french fries alone has been fueling the industry for decades. That’s the great thing about potatoes: They’re eternal (well, except for that one time), and they ask not to be in the spotlight. Only to be eaten.
Image source: Idaho Potato Commission