Pity the poor potato.

A famine has been named after it. It has been tried and burned at the stake. For years people thought it was poisonous. French physicians accused it of being a dangerous aphrodisiac, responsible for indigestion along with other maladies far worse.

It was blamed for leprosy and syphilis, and in 18th-century Russia peasants died of famine rather than cultivate the potato. The "eyes" on a potato suggested deformity and the Russians believed there was something seriously wrong with it sexually because it reproduced by budding rather than by fertilization.

In more recent times, after finally gaining acceptance as a wholesome and worthwhile food, it has had to undergo further trials. Not content to leave it in its natural state, food manufacturers have seen that it is scrubbed with lye, thinly sliced, fried in gobs of grease and then salted to a fare-thee-well. As a further technological advance, these "fat chips," as one nutritionist prefers to call them, have been dehydrated, extruded and reformed to make perfectly shaped chips that are sold in "tennis ball" cans which cost more than their contents.

Today there are instant mashed potato flakes. They have lost so many of their natural attributes, including vitamin C, during all the machinations needed to process them, that manufacturers have taken to fortifying them with vitamin C and adding some artificial color and flavor.

Mor recently, potato flakes have been combined with other ingredients, including a substantial number of additives, plopped into aluminum foil containers which are supposed to mimic the shape of a potato, and sold as frozen prepared potatoes. Naturally these cheese-or sour cream-and-chive-flavored frozen potatoes cost considerably more than an ordianry baked potato on which a little cheese is grated or some sour cream dabbed. What's more, they take as long to bake as a natural baked potato. Longer, actually, if a nail or skewer is placed through the real potato before it is put in to bake.

Perhaps these frozen potato products were designed to counter the more recent bad rap potatoes have gotten. Somehow, somewhere, someone decided that potatoes are FATTENING! In a time when most people believe "you can neither be too rich nor too thin," describing a potato as fattening is probably akin to calling it poisonous.

Several years ago a Potato Board was formed to improve the image of the potato. It has had limited success. Most people now realize that an average baked, boiled or steamed potato contains only 80 calories. It's the butter in which it often swims, the sour cream in which it is frequently drowned, the potato chips and French fries into which it is often turned that stick to your hips. The potato merely sticks to your ribs.

And even though the federal government has just agreed to bail out the Idaho potato farmers, who have had a bumper crop, by turning 9 million 100pound bags of potatoes into cattle feed, the price of Idaho potatoes, considered by many as the best for baking, will rise a penny a pound. And Maine or Long Island potatoes, often described as all-purpose, can still be purchased for very little -- 20 pounds for $1.39.

In addition to their relatively low price and their versatility, potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C. One set of statistics credits them with supplying 20 percent of the nation's vitamin C. They also contain some riboflavin and niacin and some protein.

According to Frances Moore Lappe in "Diet for a Small Planet," 1 potato combined with 1 cup of skim milk or 5 tablespoons instant nonfat dry milk or 1/3 cup of grated cheese equals the useable protein found in a 6 3/4 ounce steak.

Myrna Davis, in "The Potato Book" (Morrow, $2.95), offers not only a history of potatoes, but information on buying and storing0them, along with a number of recipes. Davis notes that potato grades indicate size, shape and defects but not nutritive or cooking qualities. She warns against using potatoes with green spots. The green areas contain a toxic substance called solanine.

Davis also recommends storing potatoes in a cool, dark, dry place, but not where the temperature will fall below 40 degrees, such as the refrigerator. "Cold will cause the potato starch to convert to sugars and produce an undesirably sweet taste when cooked. Should this occur, however, allow potatoes to stand for several days at room temperature to convert the sugars back to starch."

Even if you won't eat a potato, Davis offers other uses for them: "A potato carried in a pocket or hung around the neck on a string and allowed to dry is an old-time cure and preventative for rheumatism."

Well, anyone who believes potatoes are fattening probably believes that, too.