Fest Celebrates Russians' Potato Passion

The Associated Press
Friday, August 24, 2007; 2:57 PM

MOSCOW -- It was a Spud-nik celebration.

Thousands of scientists, business executives and gastronomes from around the world converged on Moscow this week to lavish praise on a Russian icon: the common potato.

The occasion was Moscow Potato 2007, a chance for leading potato-heads to debate the subtleties of planting, exchange cooking tips and strategize on ways to promote the potato around the world.

Moscow was a fitting venue: While New York is known as the Big Apple, the Russian capital is called the Big Potato. And rightfully so _ for the lumpy tuber holds a privileged place in Russian history and hearts.

Among Czar Peter the Great's many reforms was introducing potatoes to Russia 300 years ago. They were initially rejected by the peasantry as "Devil's Apples," but potatoes quickly caught on and eventually came to rival cabbages and beets as staples of the Russian diet.

During the worst famines of the Soviet era the potato saved millions of lives.

Organizers staged the three-day spud fest at the sprawling All-Russian Exhibition Center in northern Moscow _ still decorated with Soviet statues of robust maidens bearing sheaves of grain _ and at the All-Russian Research Institute for Potato Growing southeast of Moscow.

Boris Vershinin, who spent four decades breeding varieties that could thrive in Russia's harsh climes, admonishes anybody who dares disparage the potato by using the diminutive Russian term "kartoshka" for the vegetable.

"It's 'His Highness Potato,'" said the biologist from the southern city of Kislovodsk. "It's Russia's second bread."

Vershinin gave a tour of the institute's potato plots to international colleagues Thursday, squeezing intriguing specimens as he lectured on the varieties he cultivated over the years.

All the while, he expounded on the potato's legacy in Russia.

After initially overcoming their suspicions, he explained, Russian peasants learned to plant the hardy crop in fields where agriculture is risky because of unpredictable weather, high humidity and early winters.

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