RACHEL CARSON would be proud of Dr. Raymon Webb. After all, they share common goals, even if Carson's environmental challenge, "Silent Spring," made enough noise to become a bestseller, while Webb has spent the last 12 years quietly clipping clothespins on vegetable plants.
Carson's work provoked indignant citizens to demand that the government find alternatives to -icides (such as fungicides and pesticides). Webb's work is a direct result of that demand. The book, he says, "resulted in significant funds appropriated for agricultural research . . . the last significant infusion of funds that we've had."
He tries to create plants that don't need -icides, and he's done well at it. Over half of his 28 years at the Agricultural Research Center at Beltsville has been devoted to finding six potato varieties that won't wilt at the sight of an aphid.
The latest is B89721. The name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue the way Russet Burbank does, but the french fries will taste every bit as good. Russet Burbank was made famous as the "Idaho" potato. The B89721, has the "Idaho" quality, and it can be grown east of the Mississippi.
That saves shipping the potatoes from the Pacific Northwest, which costs five or six cents a pound and which will cost more every time OPEC wants more money for oil.
Russets are the definitive potato -- the ones that the Idaho Potato Commission will spend $2 million promoting this year -- the rough-skinned oblong ones that you expect with your steak. They fry better than any other and, when baked, break open to a dry, mealy interior that readily absorbs butter or sour cream or guacamole.
Since 131 million people east of the Mississippi each eat about 100 pounds of fresh or frozen russet potatoes every year, it seems ridiculous that the potatoes grown in the east are exclusively "round whites" used mainly for "chipping" (that's lingo meaning they make good potato chips) or at home primarily for boiling.
"We just don't produce enough potatoes and the right kind that the consumer wants to buy," said Webb. "That's what the thrust is all about in the russet program."
B89721 is the third russet to come out of the Beltsville research. The first was BelRus (for Beltsville-Russet). This three-year-old russet shows all the qualities of a good russet and is even sold in the District's supermarkets. But the yields weren't consistent enough, so Beltsville came up with Russette.
Russette appears to be Webb's favorite. It's pretty, elongated and "russet-y" and produced good yields for the growers. But in a group of 50,000 experimental plants, one was found with ring rot -- a disease which makes it unsuitable for seed stock and sets researchers back about three years trying to develop a strain that's disease-free.
The flamboyant part, says Webb, is developing a new potato variety; but "what's important to us is what's in that variety." Researchers, consistent with the plea of pesticide-wary environmentalists, "try to get immunity to or resistance to all pests and viruses in good breeding material." And B89721 shows signs of resistance to disease in addition to its geographic adaptability.
Fifty thousand plants a year are cross-pollinated by hand "at the bud stage" (so they don't self-pollinate, which causes a weaker plant). Webb smiled when he said that he made a deal with the goverment -- for the first 15 years he would do the hand work developing the breeds, for the next 15 years the two lab technicians will do it.
Rows of greenhouses in Beltsville are filled with flats of pots and beds of potato plants. One bed might be inoculated with virus Y -- which Webb said "has been giving us fits the last five years." The plants that grow strong and healthy in spite of the inoculation show promise of being resistant. So the pollen from those might be sprinkled into the buds of plants resistant to "pink eye" (a disease which hastens rotting of potatoes in storage).
What the researchers hope to get, of course, is a plant that's resistant to both, eliminating a need for certain fungicides. When that plant grows, a diseased plant is grafted onto it -- thousands of grafts clipped with clothespins -- to make sure that it really is resistant. If the plant isn't resistant, it will show signs of disease when grafted.
Every time the government makes a claim about disease resistance, said Webb, plant pathologists all over the country will be working to get a research paper out of the fact that it really isn't resistant. So USDA has to be pretty sure of its advertising when it releases a new variety.
That can take as much as 30 years. The USDA can do it faster than independent researchers, though, said Webb, because departments of agriculture in potato-growing states can assume some of the testing on older breeds while Webb works in Beltsville to begin testing on new ones.
If USDA develops a good breed in the greenhouses at Beltsville, it carts the seeds (in the form of whole potatoes) to Maine, where they are planted in one of 57 acres of soil so free of disease that visitors have to dip their shoes in creosote to maintain the quarantine.
Every May in Maine, 50,000 seeds are planted in hills 30 inches apart, then in the fall Webb takes a week to examine the progeny of each hill individually -- "that's the part I enjoy" -- and select 2,000 exemplary plants producing the blemish-free, uniform potatoes that consumers yearn for. From each one of those 2,000 plants, enough seed potatoes will be produced for 12 more plants, which will comprise the third year's crop. The third year, 30 pounds of potatoes will come from each set of 12 plants.
The USDA will use some of the 30 pounds to evaluate eating and cooking quality. The remainder of the crop will be sent to places such as Painter, Va., or Hastings, Fla., to test resistance to "adverse growing conditions."
Indigenous climates present another set of problems to the potato plant. Humid conditions and moderate temperatures favor the growth of pests and fungi that could harm the plants. The aim is for potato strains to prove themselves in a variety of climate conditions in various eastern states.
From there, the numbers (B89721) get changed to names (BelRus) and they become potential McDonald's french fries.
In theory, this means a savings of consumer dollars, although Webb admitted that savings are hardly ever realized.
But Ellen Paul, who researches food shipments for Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pa., points out that even if money is not saved, the consumer realizes a nutritional benefit. Food that is shipped over long distances almost always diminishes in quality and nutrients. In addition, the local economy benefits from food that is grown and sold in the same region.
Unfortunately, the potato suffers a poor reputation. Rumor has it that potatoes are laden with nothing but calories; that they promise little but a bulging waistline.
It's a bad rap. Dr. Webb touts the potato as a balanced source of all nutrients, insisting that a diet of 85 percent potatoes and 15 percent milk would sustain anyone adequately. Potatoes are low in the amino acid methionine, he says, but milk would make up for that.
Quickly adding that he doesn't "recommend a diet of potatoes and milk," he says potatoes offer vitamin C, protein and B vitamins in a tasty, 90-calorie package. Heavyweight toppings such as sour cream (55 calories a tablespoon) and butter (100 calories per tablespoon) are responsible for the potato's bad name.
The key is to capitalize on the potato's strong points, thus avoiding the temptation to slather it with empty calories. Barbara Gibbons, cookbook author and creator of "The Slim Gourmet" syndicated column, has done a little testing with potato skins that keeps this extravagance low enough in calories so even the most ardent dieters can enjoy them.
BAKED POTATO SKINS (2 servings) 2 baked potatoes, halved and hollowed out, leaving a 1/4- to 1/2-inch rim of potato attached to the skin 1 tablespoon oil Vegetable salt, parmesan cheese or herbs, as desired
Place potato skins on a non-stick baking sheet. Brush with oil. Place the sheet in a preheated 475-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until the are quite brown. Sprinkle with desired flavoring.
The following is a low-calorie adaptation of Simone Beck's recipe for a gratin of potatoes from her book, "New Menus from Simca's Cuisine." Take care to use a glass or enameled baking dish so the milk doesn't turn color from a metal pan. The sauce for these potatoes will be quite thin. If you expect that to disappoint you, mix the milk with a tablespoon or two of flour before you pour it over the potatoes.
POTATO GRATIN WITH TARRAGON (6 to 8 servings) 6 large russet potatoes 3 cups skim milk, or more if necessary 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon 2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper Grated parmesan cheese
Slice the potatoes about 1/8-inch thick. Place the slices in layers in a large, buttered casserole. Combine the milk with tarragon, salt and pepper and pour it over the potatoes, covering them with milk. Place in a 375-degree oven and bake for 35 minutes. Carefully remove the potatoes from the oven. Increase the heat to 450 degrees. Sprinkle the potatoes with parmesan cheese and return to oven. Bake about 10 minutes. Serve with a slotted spoon.
James Beard's potato bread (for which he gives credit to George Lang in the book "Beard on Bread") is a wonderful first try for new bread bakers. It bakes up big and brown, which seems to encourage first-timers with a delicious positive reinforcement. Beard recommends serving the bread with "heavily sauced dishes, because it is perfect for dunking. It's also great for a bread, cheese and wine meal." Make this with leftover mashed potatoes, if you have them, or use the insides from leftover potato skins. POTATO BREAD WITH CARAWAY SEEDS (1 large loaf)
1 cup mashed potatoes (2 or 3 whole potatoes)
1 package active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water
2 pounds unbleached flour (about 8 cups), or more, if necessary
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1/2 tablespoon caraway seeds
Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their skins until tender. Drain them, then peel and mash them or put through a potato ricer while they are still warm. Allow the potatoes to cool. Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water in a large bowl. Stir in 3 tablespoons of flour. Let this "starter" rise for about 30 minutes. Add the remaining water, salt, caraway seeds, 6 cups of flour and mashed potatoes. Mix well. The dough should be fairly stiff. Add remaining flour until it is too stiff to stir, then turn onto a floured board and knead in remaining flour. Knead until it is elastic and glossy -- about 12 minutes. Shape into a ball, place in an oiled bowl and turn the dough to coat it all over with oil. Place in a warm spot to rise for an hour or 2, until the dough has doubled in bulk. Remove the dough (it will be softer than some doughs you are accustomed to), punch it down, and knead 4 or 5 more minutes. Shape into a large loaf and place in a greased 12-inch ovenproof skillet. Allow the dough to rise 30 to 35 minutes. Brush it with water. Using a serrated or very sharp knife, make a deep incision in the form of a cross in the center of the dough. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 1 hour, or until it is nicely browned and sounds hollow when tapped with the knuckles (this could take up to 1 1/4 hours).