(Being the adventures of a Hungry Farmer with a few too many Heirloom Potatoes and a bit less land than needed.*)
The plain truth* was that I was clearing a line for late summer melons when it become clear that there was no room* for a another hill of heirloom Garnet Chile Potatoes. The solution or First Slice*, of course, was to bandicoot the hill of potatoes making room for a melon start. To bandicoot a potato is a simple matter. The soil surrounding the potato plant is moistened until it yields to probing trowel or hand. The small, immature spuds near the surface are carefully harvested leaving their deeply positioned brethren to grow.
For readers of a certain age (5-100) and nationality (Australian) the phrase ‘bandicoot potatoes’ is instantly familiar if not evocative. The bandicoot is a small marsupial resident of Australia. Similar in appearance to a rat and armed with the foraging bravado of a pig bandicoots are famed villains in the Australian garden. Bandicoots are said to sense the first moment when a sweet potato can be dug or a melon’s debut to sweetness. Their larcenous, sly habits are immortalized in Australian slang. To “bandicoot” is to steal but with a touch of flair and skill.
Much like Walt Disney’s animal creations the bandicoot has been given an anthropomorphic makeover in Australian literature and art. He’s a quick-thinking thief and liar but not an altogether a bad guy. He has his reasons and malice isn’t one of them. The bandicoot in Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding is the cornerstone creation in the Aussie imagination. The 1918 children’s classic documents the travels of three characters on a journey in the company of a magical pudding that can be eaten without being consumed. The pudding is soon stolen while the characters fight would-be thieves and one another when not breaking into song or verse. We first meet ‘The Bandicoot’ in Lindsay’s brilliant drawings that accompany the text. The Bandicoot is holding a stolen watermelon so large that we can only see his legs. The subsequent interrogation of the bandicoot by Bill Barnacle is a sublime “cop-meets-criminal” moment. Bill is looking for the possum who has stolen his Magic Pudding. The Bandicoot doesn’t initially grasp that Bill’s interest in him is as a witness and not as a thief. The bandicoot pulls out one lie and then another in an attempt to tell Bill what he wants to hear. The exchange is deft, funny and as genuine as any reality cop show.
Bandicooting potatoes is not isolated to Australia. Anyone forced to wait the full measure of a potato’s growth cycle can get hungry, particularly for the taste of a just-dug, “new potato.” The time required for a potato to reach maturity varies by potato variety. The English make distinctions between potatoes harvested at 12 weeks called “earlies” and those at 14 weeks called “seconds.” Earlies are dug before flowering. They are small with very fragile skins. Seconds are dug just after flowering and are a bit larger but still with loads of ‘new potato’ flavor. “Mains” are potatoes left 16 weeks or longer in the ground. Mains are fully mature spuds with thickened skins ready for storage.
The ‘new potatoes’ we find in American produce aisles are faint images of a just-dug, bandicooted potato. The ubiquitous bright red “creamer potato” is usually a modern variety bred for its appearance. Cherry Red is popular here in California. They are a ‘seconds’ potato dug early for smaller size and then misted under refrigeration until you buy them months later. If they taste like new potatoes its purely an accident.
Any good potato is worth bandicooting if you can manage it. Gardeners with foresight can make the steal easier by mixing straw with the soil when they ‘hill’ the potato plants shortly after emerging. Hilling encourages spud formation near the soil surface and the straw makes fast work of the digging. I particularly like bandicoot Red Lasoda potatoes. If there is a more delicious new potato than Red Lasoda, I’ve not grown it.
The photograph shows the results of my potato larceny of a Garnet Chile hill. I’ve written a long story about Garnet Chile a year ago but I can’t say that it stimulated much interest in them. Perhaps people are still gaga over fingerlings. Fingerlings are a fine choice for a wax type but there’s a bigger world of potato taste out there besides fingerlings and the fraudulent Yukon Gold.
It’s a sad puzzle that potatoes have sunk to an anonymous generic in the American market. Marketers have taught us to prefer white-fleshed potatoes because they appeal to some notion of sanitation and purity. We’ve bred potatoes to have smooth surfaces because we think that the ‘eyes’ are imperfections. We refrigerate and drug our potatoes to prevent them from aging naturally. And the largest consumer of potatoes in America has placed dimensional requirements on potatoes so that they yield the largest number of fries over 4 inches in length. We seem to have every notion about a potato except taste.
But finding the ‘true taste’ of a potato is not a simple affair. De Gaulle once commented, “Very important affairs never have a single answer.” I think he was speaking about potatoes. Much like Lindsay’s Magic Pudding potatoes can taste like potatoes unless they taste like something else. In adept, sensitive hands the potato can suggest a tender spring moment while another pose can mimic stolid winter nourishment. They can be a star or a foil. Dairy is a favored partner but a naked flour potato baked in ashes can be a revelation. The potato is a culinary chameleon adept in starkly different roles but always recognizable as a warm, fulfilling presence. Perhaps bandicoot potatoes were in Norman Lindsay’s mind when Bill Barnacle the sailor observered “There’s nothing this Puddin’ enjoys more than offering slices of himself to strangers.”
These bandicoot potatoes were organically grown in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.
Vegetables of Interest, 2008
* Phrasing suggested by N. Lindsay, 1918, The Magic Pudding