There are those who swear by chocolate and those who stand by Coke. Tom Hughes carries his food fixation a bit further. As curator of the Potato Museum in Washington, he lives, breathes and, of course, eats potatoes.
"I find potatoes everywhere," offered Hughes. "I was at Al's Magic Shop looking for a gift and asked, 'What have you got in potatoes?' recalled Hughes, who walked away with a disappearing potato trick. "The potato fits into all our interests: food, art, travel . . . "
And diplomacy. Hughes figures his potato exhibit "would be a great cultural exchange" between the United States and the Soviet Union. We're both potato eaters," he explained matter-of-factly, "but then I see the whole world like that."
Hughes' museum collection showcases not only a clock that runs on potato power and a complete Mr. Potato Head, but the quintessential tribute to St. Patrick's Day feasting -- a pewter ice cream mold that produces a confection, which, when rolled in cocoa powder, achieves that authentically earthy tuber look.
His culinary introduction to Solanum tuberosum was as a youngster growing up near Philadelphia in the 1950s. "I used to make the classic kid's meal of mashed potato mountains, parsley trees and a gravy depository," he reminisced recently, trailing a finger through the air to illustrate the sauce's cascading down onto the plate. "It was that and baked potatoes and potato chips."
Hughes outgrew the mashed potato mountains, but not the potatoes. In fact, when he and his wife Meredith took up residence in Brussels, where Tom taught fifth graders at the International School (and spent his free time photographing the kiosks that sold pommes frittes), he turned his fascination with the vegetable into a class project: How would the world benefit from a potato museum, he wanted to know.
A lot, the children responded. Their reports focused on not only the culinary, but also the historic, scientific and cultural contributions of the spud. Three vacant classrooms were transformed into a home for the exhibit, which remained on display until the Hugheses moved to Washington in 1983, along with most of the Potato Museum.
Modeled after the small, family-run museums the Hugheses encountered throughout Europe, the Potato Museum also serves as residence for the couple and their 3-year-old son Gulliver. That means there are no established hours (interested parties can call 544-1558 to arrange for tours) and no official budget, only the money that comes out of Hughes' pocket. Although he wants to call attention to his subject "in an entertaining way," Hughes sees his museum as serving a scholarly function, worthy of nonprofit, educational status, not to mention larger quarters.
The museum isn't exactly the city's most frequented; only about a dozen visitors see it in any given week and of that number, about half are European, Hughes estimated. He thinks these guests have a special appreciation for the vegetable. In Europe, where yellow-fleshed spuds flourish, "potatoes are dealt with with as much pleasure as fresh tomatoes are in the United States," he said. Moreover, Hughes has an enthusiastic audience in his fifth-grade class at the Potomac School in McLean. "Children understand much quicker. Adults have preconceived notions of what are normal adult interests."
Still, the museum "has a bigger impact than size would warrant," claimed Hughes from the family dining room that functions as the main gallery. A phone caller -- and the phone rings often at the Potato Museum -- is as likely to be a radio talk show host seeking an interview or an inquisitive gardener as a friend or relative. To prevent the exhibit from completely dominating their Capitol Hill town house -- about 300 items are on display throughout the ground floor, though the complete collection comprises approximately 2,500 pieces -- the Hugheses divide their artifacts among five storage locations, including a friend's potato garden in Brussels.
"You focus on something narrow and it becomes enormous," exuded Hughes as he scanned the collection of post cards and toys, records and books, machinery and photographs. The kitchen is decorated with enough mashers and potato processors to tackle a field of spuds. A side room is brimming with heirloom varieties of potato, many of which have been identified from the museum's archives of photographs. Does he have a prized possession? "It's always the most recent acquisition," Hughes quickly responded, which at the moment happens to be a "telemetry device used for impact detection," a potato-shaped apparatus used to determine whether potatoes are being damaged at any point in the harvest process.
Potato memorabilia trickle in from around the country ("I have spud spies all over," said Hughes) yet he's been thus far unsuccessful in locating a package of Spud brand cigarettes, which he claims to be "the first mentholated cigarettes."
"We take the subject as far as it can go," laughed Hughes, who cites the museum as a center for fellow potato enthusiasts from around the world. On the more erudite level are the Tubers, a Missouri-based organization interested in the preservation of old varieties of potatoes. Less serious are the Couch Potatoes -- aficionados "devoted to prolonged television viewing," noted Hughes -- from California.
The Potato Museum is by no means a one-man operation. Meredith Hughes serves as editor of the museum's monthly newsletter, "Peelings," that chronicles potato trivia and expounds on all manner of themes -- mashed potatoes, for instance, or potato chips, or how potatoes have been boiled through the ages.
And if it's Wednesday, it must be Potato Eaters' Night at the Hugheses', a chance for friends to share a smorgasbord of potato dishes, the recipes for which are culled from the museum's extensive cookbook collection. "We're interested more in the social than the nutritional aspects of the potato," said Hughes, adding that the vegetable is widely known for its nutrition and versatility. Moreover, "we're trying to perfect our cooking skills." Recently initiated, the dinner is being considered as a possible fund-raising event for the museum.
The Hugheses don't plan to stop there, however. With near missionary zeal, Tom described his dreams of producing a documentary film "illustrating the worldwide migration of the potato, from the Incans on" and writing a potato book "you could eat your way through," a not too impossible feat judging from a sample sheet of potato paper sent by a fan from Connecticut. (It looks, feels and probably tastes like lefse.)
Although Hughes receives no support from the potato industry, he is perhaps the vegetable's staunchest supporter. And the industry can use all the promotion it can get. Considering last year's record-breaking 40 billion pound harvest, his efforts are no small potatoes.
MEREDITH'S MASHIE BURGERS (Makes 6 to 8 patties)
"Leftover mashed potatoes are prized in the Potato Museum kitchen," according to Meredith Hughes. "They form a thickener for soups, add moisture and minerals to muffins, and when mixed with chopped vegetables and fried, feed the hungry hordes as Meredith's Mashie Burgers."
*2 cups leftover mashed potatoes
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup chopped scallions
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped or sliced mushrooms
1 large carrot, grated
Generous grindings of freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
Generous tablespoon chopped fresh dill (optional)
Olive oil for frying
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, mixing them as you would a meat-loaf preparation. Form into patties and fry on both sides in olive oil until lightly browned. Serve as is, or with the condiments of choice, on hamburger rolls or toasted bread. bat10 The following recipes come from a sample dinner menu the Hugheses hope to serve as a fund-raising venture for the Potato Museum. Interested participants can call 544-1558 for further information.
POTATO FRITTERS (8 servings)
1 cup water
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 medium potatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying
In a medium saucepan, heat water, butter and salt until water comes to a full boil. Add flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon until it forms a ball and leaves the sides of the pan. Remove pan from heat and add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Peel potatoes and cook in lightly salted water in a large covered saucepan for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain, cool slightly and place through a potato ricer or food mill. Add salt if necessary and season with pepper. Beat potatoes into flour/egg mixture.
Pour 2 inches of oil in a large skillet, preferably an electric frying pan, and heat to 360 degrees. Drop mixture by the tablespoonful into hot oil and fry 5 minutes or until golden, turning once. Fritters will puff up as they cook. Remove, drain on paper toweling and serve immediately, either plain or with garlic dip (recipe follows).
Adapted from "Wild About Potatoes" by Marie Bianco, Barron's Educational Series, 1985
GARLIC DIP (Makes approximately 1 1/4 cups dip)
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
4 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1/3 to 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
In a small bowl, combine the garlic, mustard and egg yolks. Stir until well blended. Combine the vegetable and olive oils and add them slowly to the garlic mixture, beating constantly. As the mixture begins to thicken, add oil a bit faster and beat until smooth. Add the lemon juice and seasonings to taste. Serve with potato fritters or over baked potatoes.
Adapted from "Wild About Potatoes," by Marie Bianco, Barron's Educational Series, 1985
POTATOES VINAIGRETTE (6 servings)
2 pounds small, firm new potatoes
3 tablespoons wine vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced chives
6 crisp leaves of boston lettuce
2-ounce can flat anchovy fillets, drained
Boil the potatoes in their skins until tender; drain and dry in a pan over heat, being careful not to burn them. In a bowl, combine the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper and chives. Blend thoroughly and set aside.
Peel the potatoes, only if desired, and cut them into 1/4-inch slices. On individual plates, arrange the slices on the lettuce leaves and garnish with anchovies. Just before serving, spoon on the desired amount of reserved vinaigrette.agcrdt3 Adapted from "The Great Potato Cookbook" by Maria Luisa Scott and Jack Denton Scott, Bantam Books, 1980.
3/4 to 1 pound boiled, peeled and diced potatoes
3/4 pound sugar
9 eggs, separated
Generous 1/4 pound sweet almonds, finely grated
In an electric mixer, mix all ingredients, except the egg whites, until you achieve a smooth and creamy dough. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, pour into a buttered souffle' dish and bake in a 375-degree oven for approximately 45 to 50 minutes.
Adapted from "The Potato Cookbook" by Gwen Robyns, Stemmer House Publications, 1976