Thanks for potatoes

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OST) Most people think of turkey when they think of Thanksgiving, but not commentator Henry Homeyer. For him, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without potatoes.

(HOMEYER) To me, potatoes are an essential part of Thanksgiv-
ing. I’m nearly 60 years old, and have eaten them every Thanks-
giving Day of my life, but one. That one exception occurred when
I was a young man hitchhiking through Tunisia, and none were on the menu. I had a spicy chicken couscous instead, and, truth be known, I felt somewhat deprived and a little bit home sick that day. I’ve substituted chicken or duck for the turkey several times while working in the Peace Corps, but potatoes? Only that once.

Potatoes are amazing producers of food. A single potato, if kept until late spring, can be divided into 2 or 3 sections and planted. Each new plant will produce anywhere from 1 to 5 pounds of food – an amazing return for just a little work and a spot in the garden. When potatoes were introduced in Ireland, they were a contribu-
ting factor in the population surge that ended when the potato blight hit in the 1840’s.

The Irish potato famine was caused by a fungus that wiped out
all their potatoes virtually overnight. Back then, there were no
relief organizations to help feed the hungry, so many starved or fled the country.

In Peru there are some 3,000 different kinds of potatoes. But the Irish grew just one kind, and it was highly susceptible to Phytoph-
thora, the fungus that causes potato blight. Who knows what would have happened back then if they’d been growing a hundred different kinds? In all likelihood, a few varieties would have survived, along with some of those poor people who starved to death. It might’ve changed history.

Each year I grow at least five varieties of potatoes. I always grow Red Pontiacs and a Peruvian purple potato that, when cooked, is blue and white, with patterns like a tie-dyed tee-shirt. Most years I grow Yukon Gold. I like white potatoes, too, and have tried several including Kennebecs, which are the classic Maine potato. This year I grew one called All Red, which cooks up to be pink inside, and was very productive. Next year I’ll try some fingerlings, which are less productive, but delicious.

As organic gardeners, we don’t spray our potatoes to kill the bugs that inevitably find our potato patch looking for a free lunch. I be-
lieve in planting later than the neighbors, so the beetles go there instead. We also hand pick the yellow and brown striped beetles and their fat orange larvae every day when they do show up. That might not be practical for acres of potatoes, but it works for us.

I like to pause for a moment each year to give thanks to the Incas who domesticated the potato, and whose descendents still grow many different kinds. As agriculture in America gets more indus-
trialized, there are fewer varieties grown each year. But we all need to remember what happened in Ireland. I’m doing my bit for diversity.

This is the Gardening Guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, N.H.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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