BONN, JAN. 15 -- Boiled potatoes with herring was the first course. Potato soup came next, followed by potato slices and blood sausage.
It was only after the fourth course, beef with potato dumplings, that U.S. Ambassador Richard Burt was presented with the most important potato of all.
To the applause of 350 West German politicians, journalists and businessmen, the envoy received a Golden Potato, or rather a painting of one. He was honored Thursday evening as the first American recipient of the not-so-prestigious Golden Potato award. It has been given more or less annually since 1981 by a cabal of otherwise serious gentlemen, including Walter Leisler-Kiep, treasurer of the ruling Christian Democratic Union, and Theo Sommer, who is both editor of the respected weekly Die Zeit and a Newsweek columnist.
The Golden Potato honors the recipient's ability to triumph over "diabolical Sachzwang," a phenomenon that is very German and not found in any readily available dictionary.
It might be rendered as the "devilish coercion of things," or "hellish pressures." Sachzwang, an artificial construction combining the words for "thing" (Sache) and "compulsion" (Zwang), was made famous by former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, when he once used it to explain why he had ignored the expressed wishes of his Social Democratic Party.
Burt was specifically cited for telling a West German magazine last year that his motto was "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
"One thing for which I never have received an award is my German," the 40-year-old Burt said, in German, on receiving the prize in a banquet hall adjoining the Christian Democratic headquarters building.
"I will spare you the Sachzwang of listening to me while I stutter through a speech," he said, and instead treated the audience to "an important documentary film."
The lights were dimmed, and a videotape rolled. A newscast reported the award of the Golden Potato to Richard Burt. The anchorwoman: Miss Piggy.
Among the guests commenting on the prize and the ambassador in the "broadcast" was Economics Minister Martin Bangemann, who warned somberly that "this abundance of golden potatoes will surely send down the price of gold, will have very grave repercussions for the German economy and probably will wreck it." Mikhail Gorbachev also was "quoted" as welcoming the event in the name of the Supreme Soviet.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's top security adviser, Horst Teltschik, went on camera for the gag and headed the list of notables at the dinner.
The eight-minute tape was made by the West German broadcast network ZDF, which did so for free in return for German rights to it. "We didn't pay a penny," Burt aide Uli Simon said.
The potato dinner is basically an in-joke among a group of prominent West Germans, including 1982 winner Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. The ever-traveling Genscher was honored then for "overcoming the cardinal pressures of time and place by making statements to the astonished German public from three to four places in the world at the same time." True to form, Genscher missed Thursday night's dinner because he was too busy during a brief stopover in Bonn between trips to Poland and Syria.
The jokes are heavily dependent on references to potatoes. Leisler-Kiep proposed that the United States and West Germany "revolutionize" international economic policy by backing their currencies with ... you guessed it.
"Rumors that the Federal Reserve Board has been moved to Idaho ... are premature," he said.
Calling Burt an "unconventional ambassador," Leisler-Kiep referred to the envoy's late nights at Berlin discothe`ques and the occasions when he has sung along with rock groups. Always on the lookout for the best in rock 'n' roll, Burt has slipped through Checkpoint Charlie to visit a club in Communist East Berlin.
But his late hours have not prevented Burt from discussing the details of how to verify nuclear disarmament accords the following morning, Leisler-Kiep hastened to add.
With this award, Burt forever will be linked to potatoes in the German public's mind. Last month he and Genscher sold their combined weight in potato pancakes at Bonn's outdoor Christmas fair. Burt did so to pay off a wager that he lost on a West German television game show.
Burt bet that a contestant could balance a stack of coins atop a single coin standing on its edge. The contestant failed.