Red Pontiac Potatoes
It’s the Fourth of July and time to dig potatoes. Actually, its past time. I planted my short row of Red Pontiacs around the first of April. The variety matures about 80 days from planting which means I’m about ten days late. Lateness is something you get used to when farming.
The time it takes for a potato to mature isn’t something we think about as consumers but it was a bottleneck as potatoes traveled from their origin in South America to Europe. Its apparent that many selections were made as the potato moved up from the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands into Northern Europe. The short growing seasons in the North required varieties with more rapid growth. Luckily, potatoes have a relatively high rate of spontaneous mutations affecting color, skin type, shape and maturation times. Careful observation combined with the ability to reproduce “true-to-type” offspring via the use of tubers made for the rapid establishment of many potato varieties. English plantsmen were particularly fastidious about potato maturation times classifying the spread of differing types as “first earlies”, “second earlies”, “mains” and “late mains.”
Potato varieties have also been developed by cross pollination. The original or “regular” Pontiac potato was developed in the late 1930s as a cross between an old English potato named “Triumph” and a Maine potato called “Katahdin.” I’ve never seen the regular Pontiac but it is described as having white flesh as did its parents but with a buffed reddish skin similar to Triumph. The “Red Pontiac” selection with its bright red skin came out as a mutation found in Southern field tests in the early 1940s.
I like several things about the Red Pontiac potato aside from its interesting pedigree. In particular, I like its imperfections. If grown to maturity the tubers vary in size and shape. They are mostly round but oblong ones show up too. The surface of the spud is dotted with shallow eyes and subtle nobs that don’t quite become noses. In short, these potatoes look like they have character in comparison to the perfectly shaped, winkle-free Burbank bakers.
Our modern day obsession with vegetable appearances is sad and uninformed but it isn’t new. In the 16th century there arose a theory called the “Doctrine of Signatures” that prescribed plant materials as ‘herbals’. The Doctrine held that plants resembling a human malady in some respect would be helpful in its cure. For example, red beet juice could help cure blood ailments. Walnuts were good for scalp wounds and so forth. In the case of potatoes Doctrine writings concluded that the numerous ‘growths’ on the surface of many potatoes suggested a sinister connection to leprosy and they strongly advised against its consumption.
For those among you who have the courage to ignore 16th century mystical thinking, the Red Pontiac potato will reward you. Its thin skin has a beautiful ‘crunch’ when braised. And the waxy flesh makes a great mash. The flavor? “Happiness increased” is how John Foster described potatoes in 1664. True then. True now.
Vegetables of Interest, 2009