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In 2008, This Spud's for You

Sunday, January 6, 2008

WHERE: Harrisburg, Pa., and its environs.

WHY: A bit o' the Irish potato, beer suds and spuds, and fry guys.

HOW FAR: About 85 miles from start to finish.

Mr. Potato Head, this is going to be your year: The United Nations has declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato. To be sure, potatoes pop up in fields from South Africa to South Dakota and in dishes from empanadas to, yes, chocolate cake. But you can pay homage closer to home -- and with more familiar eats -- at the potato farms and french fry stands of southern Pennsylvania.

The United Nations chose the tuber to promote potato production in developing countries ( http://www.potato2008.org). The root vegetable, which has quite a history (both tasty and tragic), is readily cultivated and packed with such nutrients as carbohydrates, protein and vitamin C. Of course, Pennsylvania's potato farmers have known this for generations, and Washingtonians have been eating the state's starch for nearly as long. (Hint: Read the small print on the next bag of potatoes you buy at Safeway.)

Tater foraging in Pennsylvania harks back to the Seneca Indians, who dug up wild ones called whoppanies. Spuds, however, really gained acclaim in the state in 1922, when the Pennsylvania Co-Operative Potato Growers was formed under the direction of Ernest Nixon, Richard Nixon's uncle.

Just as wine grapes depend on the terroir, potato quality is influenced by weather and the soil's character. Pennsylvania's intermittent rainfall creates perfect growing conditions for the round white varieties, which have a thin skin and white or yellowish flesh. They often turn up in french fries, soup or the Pennsylvania Dutch dish called potato filling, basically mashed potatoes smooshed with bread cubes, vegetables and herbs.

Today, the state's potato farms are losing ground to corn and soy plantings and housing developments. About 60 commercial farmers grow taters on 12,000 acres, down from more than 300,000 acres in the early 1900s. So, for the International Year of the Potato, let us all honor Pennsylvania's humble spud, then stick a fork in it.

-- Ben Chapman

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