THINGS HAVEN'T been good for potatoes -- real potatoes -- during recent years. The tuber has played a critical role in world history, yet its natural virtues are being forgotten and trampled in a technological age. Americans eat more pounds of potatoes per capita than practically any other food except meat and poultry products. What else could provide you with a one-pound meal for less than 20 cents? But since 1960, U.S. society has shunned fresh potatoes and embraced processed, frozen and reconstituted potatoes instead. No matter that potatoes out of the box cost a 10 times as much or more than potatoes out of the bin.
So, in this age of gnawing resource shortages and world hunger, of biting inflation and political turmoil, 15 friends came together to create a four-hour, eight-course dinner based from aperitif to dessert on the maligned, underrated but gloriously satisfying -- and natural -- potato.
That's not the only reason why artist Leslie Kuter and writer Bob Arnebeck organized the Potato Party. "We had a potato dinner," Arnebeck said, "because it's there."
We held our potato feast in Kuter and Arnebeck's co-op apartment, a tumble of burlap and shredded wool from Kuter's art project that looks like the cutting room of a carpet factory. Russian folk singers and balalaikas spun background music. We sat around a long wood plank, brown as a potato skin. "I hoped everyone would have noticed," Arnebeck said, raising his first glass of potato vodka in a toast, "that in the pictures that have come from Saturn most of the satellites of Saturn look like potatoes."
For those of you who are confused by potatoes' reported orgins -- they feel American but then, what about French fries? -- here's the accepted story: The first written records of potatoes come from Spanish explorers describing the Incas high in the Andes, in the 1500s; from there the potato was ferried to Spain, and then to Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh in about 1588.We all know (or should) the story of how Ireland became tragically dependent on potatoes, and how, when a blight struck in 1845, more than a million Irish died and another million emigrated to the U.S.
The next major moment in potato history didn't occur until the early 1970s, when Procter & Gamble introduced Pringles, those hyperbolic reconstituted potatoes preserved for a year at a time in a tennis ball can, and priced at a dozen times the cost of the fresh ingredients.
Our first course, appropriately enough, came from Spain -- a tortilla, not the Mexican version, but the elegant Spanish blend of sliced potato, onions, lots of pepper and eggs, cooked slowly until it is a fragrant golden pancake. Next came potato soup, a tableau of pale brown flecked with dark dashes of bacon, the brownish white of fresh mushrooms and glints of chive green. "The potato is a very important ingredient of the Austrian kitchen," said Gabriele Holzer, cultural attache at the Austrian Embassy. "When I grew up in Austria, we didn't have very much to eat for a long time. We were recovering form a major war. The potato was one of the cheap and easily available foods that we could have."
After potato soup and more vodka, we moved to potato bread -- to remain us of the potato flour the Incas made by squashing potatoes with their feet and drying them -- and then to a more elegant potato salad, Mediterranean-style, with olives, capers, anchovies and an inordinate quality of fattening and fragrant olive oil. We compensated our guilt over the oil by toasting with more vodka to the little-known but astonishing truths about the potatoe's nutritional worth.
If you believe, like most Americans, that the potato is just a lumpy excuse for deep fat and salt, listen: The potato has no more calories than an apple, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it contains five times as much phosphorous, four times as much Vitamin C, and -- best of all -- a whalloping storehouse of vitamin B-6, or pyridoxine.
Recent studies suggest that vitamin B-6 deficiencies are becoming more widespread in the U.S. as the American diet depends more heavily on processed foods in which the vitamin has been destroyed. These deficiencies, some studies suggest, may be linked to heart disease, mental depression and even tooth decay. Could the government forget national insurance and dispense potatoes instead?
Before experimenting with the first of three potato desserts we took a break to celebrate the potato in a more serious vein. The potato is as versatile in culture as in cuisine. "Van Gogh's 'The Potato Eaters'," according to Derek Guthrie, publisher of the Art Examiner, "was a milestone of social consciousness in the 20th Century." We mused how introductory Great Books courses in college might have changed if the authors had appreciated potatoes as much as we did: For Whom the Tuber Tolls, Uncle Tuber's Cabin, Tuberwolfe, Tortilla Tuber and the Critique of Pure Tuber might be among the classics.
And at your next party, you may want to sing Arnebeck's potato songs, American classics rewritten to favor the potato (this one to God Bless America): God Bless the potato/spuds that I love/Stand by her when I fry her/When I bake, make the taste that I love . . ."
By the time we had finished the first dessert -- a moist chocolate potato cake decked with dollops of whipped cream and dark cherries -- the guests were becoming uninhibited. Rich childhood memories began to flow. "When I was a little girl," said Sherry Conway Appel, a public relations specialist for the Prince Georges County Council, "I loved potatoes. And my grandmother would always make extra potatoes when she knew I was coming. Well, one time I ate a big bowl of mashed potatoes, and there were more potatoes, so I ate more potatoes and I ate more potatoes because everyone was watching me. I guess I was showing off. And I got up from the table," she recalls, "and I passed out. Insulin shock. Gone."
"Potatoes are real security," another guest shared. "I mean, in the 1950s we used to have air-raid drills in the schools, and we'd have to go sit in the halls and put our hands over our heads. But we had the potato, the real potato, we could go home to."
We finished the second dessert, a moist floating mashed potato souffle with cointreau, orange peel and bittersweet chocolate sauce, and were too full to tackle the third dessert, Kuter's innovative fried chocolate balls. But we discovered what every Washington host and hostess will be relieved to know, now that a new administration is coming and the old dinner topics are passe: The potato can provide an almost infinite and deeply felt topic of dinner conversation.
Long after the chill of the vodka had gone and the seconds of potato souffle had sogged on the plates, we talked potato. We debated the merits of smooth versus lumpy mashed potatoes. We shared childhood strategies for snitching chunks of raw potato from the kitchen counter when our mothers weren't looking.
We argued over the merits of long and skinny versus fat French fries, and marveled how the potato is not at all related to the sweet potato but to deadly night-shade, the source of the powerful drug belladonna. Those curious eyes and graceful green potato sprouts, incidentally, are poisonous.
"The passion of the potato," said Sherry Appel. "That's the key here. I mean, the potato looks like this lump -- kind of round, not terribly appealing.It doesn't have a bright color. It just kind of sits there quietly in its corner. So you have this little thing that's so maligned -- and it's really a delicacy. Look at tonight." She surveyed the remains of the feast, once nestled in the soil but now boiled, baked, mashed, whipped and fried. "There was some spark." POTATO SOUP 6 potatoes -- peeled and diced 6 cups beef stock 3 stalks celery, chopped 2 chopped carrots 1 onion, chopped 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 1 garlic clove, minced Pinch caraway, marjoram Salt and white pepper
Cook potatoes in beef stock and add chopped celery and carrots. Brown onion in the butter, stir in flour and cook over medium heat for 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the potato mixture, cook and stir until smooth. Simmer 20 minutes. Add garlic and seasonings to taste. Puree in a blender or food processor, or put through a sieve. Add more stock if it's too thick, plus 1/4 cup heavy cream if desired. Serve sprinkled with grated lemon rind, chopped mushrooms, fried bacon and chives. From Lilliam Langseth-Christensen's "The Gourmet's Old Vienna Cookbook" POTATO SOUFFLE A L'ORANGE WITH BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SAUCE 1 orange 1 cup lukewarm mashed potatoes 1 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/4 cup heavy cream 5 eggs, separated 4 to 5 tablespoons Cointreau or Grand Marnier Butter Sugar
Peel thin outer rind of orange and mince it. Squeeze the orange and reserve the juice. In a blender or food processor mix the potatoes, orange peel and juice, brown sugar, vanilla, cream, egg yolks and Cointreau. Add more or less sugar and liqueur, to taste (flavors should be stronger than you wish for the flavoring in the finished souffle). Whip the egg whites until they hold peaks; stir a spoonful of whites into the souffle base, then fold in the rest. Butter a souffle mold (about 9-inch diameter) and sprinkle with sugar. Pour in souffle mixture. Put in preheated 425-degree oven and immediately turn down to 375 degrees. Bake 30 minutes, until top and sides are golden brown. Dust top with powdered sugar. Chocolate Sauce
Melt 2 squares bittersweet chocolate in 1/2 cup water, over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons brandy, and sugar if desired. Spoon lightly over souffle when serving. LESLIE'S CHOCO-SPUDNUTS 1large potato, peeled, cooked and mashed, cooled to room temperature 1egg beaten 1/2 cup sugar (or more, to taste) 1 teaspoon baking powder 3 to 4 tablespoons cocoa 1/2 cup flour, more if necessary Oil for deep frying
Mix potato, egg, sugar, baking powder and cocoa. Add most of the flour, then begin adding enough flour in small amounts to form a sticky dough. Roll into balls the size of large marbles (or average cherry tomatoes). Heat oil deep enough to float the balls. Ease balls into the hot oil and fry, stirring gently, for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until outsides are crisped. Drain on paper towels. When balls are cooled to lukewarm, shake in a bag with powdered sugar. CHOCOLATE POTATO TORTE 1 cup butter 2 cups sugar 4 eggs, separated 1/2 cup cream 1 cup freshly cooked and riced potatoes 1 cup chopped walnuts 4 ounces baking chocolate, melted 1/4 teaspoon cloves 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 1/2 cups flour, sifted twice after measuring 1 teaspoon vanilla Grated rind of 1 lemon 2 teaspoons baking powder
Cream butter and sugar. Add yolks one by one while beating. Add rest of the ingredients except whites. Beat whites and fold into mixture. Turn into greased and floured bundt pan; bake in preheated 325-degree oven 45 minutes. Top with whipped cream and dark canned cherries. Adapted from "The Potato Book" by Myrna Davis Tortilla 2 cups sliced potatoes with peels on 2 eggs, beaten 3 tablespoons scallions or 2 tablespoons onions, chopped Salt and pepper to taste Butter or olive oil
Slice potatoes about 1/8 inch thick. Mix potatoes with eggs and onions; add some salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Heat butter or olive oil over high heat to bubbling in a 9-inch cast-iron or omelette-style pan, but do not let it brown. Pour in egg mixture and immediately turn the heat low. Cook, covered, about 10 to 15 minutes. If courageous, invert tortilla on large plate and slide back into pan, uncooked side down; cook another 10 minutes. Otherwise, finish under a broiler, 3 inches below the heat, for 5 minutes, or until lightly browned.