Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A new potato.

Today, March 7th …

The famous American horticulturalist Luther Burbank was born on this day in 1849. During his career he developed new varieties of more than 800 plants from poppies to plums (and the plumcot), but it is for the potato that now bears his name that he is best known. The potato story is a magnificent example of the occasional reward of great curiosity and patience.

Potato plants are usually grown from seed potatoes – potatoes from a previous crop saved for replanting - the new plant sprouting from the ‘eyes’. The problem with planting potato seeds is that there is no way of predicting how the potatoes will turn out – the plant from each seed can vary enormously from every other plant in the patch, which makes for great anxiety on the part of potato farmers. Burbank decided to plant the 23 seeds he found one day in a seed ball on an “Early Rose” potato plant, and he succeeded in getting all of them to germinate. As expected, there was a wide variety in the quality of the resulting potatoes, but the best of them was to change the scale of potato production in the USA. The Burbank potato (and its natural offspring the Russet Burbank) is high yielding, stores well, and has become the premier processing potato in the country, which makes for very happy potato farmers. If you ever eat fries from that place with the yellow arches – you are eating Burbank’s babies.

Burbank didn’t make money from his potato. Plant varieties could not be patented in the USA until 1930, and the only money he got for his painstaking gardening experiment was the $150 for selling the rights to the new variety. He was otherwise rewarded by having it named for him, and for being inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame

Burbank’s birthday gives us a great opportunity to add to our Historic Potato Recipe Collection.

The following recipes were chosen for no better reasons than they come from cookbooks of the first decade of his life, and because I thought they sounded fun.

Potato Omelette.
It may be made with a mashed potato or 2 ounces of potato-flour and 4 eggs, and seasoned with pepper, salt, and a little nutmeg. It should be made thick, and, being rather substantial, a squeeze of lemon will improve it. Fry a light brown.
[The Ladies' New Book of Cookery: A Practical System For Private Families In Town And Country; With Directions For Carving, And Arranging The Table For Parties, etc. Also Preparations Of Food For Invalids And For Children. Sarah Josepha Hale. New York, 1852.]

Potato Sandwiches.
Saute the slices of beef as directed for bubble and squeak, cover one side of each piece with mashed potatoes a quarter of an inch in thickness, egg and bread-crumb over, then proceed the same with the other sides; fry in hot fat of a light brown color, as you would a sole, and serve. Any kind of fresh meat may be used the same way.
[The Practical Housekeeper; A Cyclopedia of Domestic Economy ... Ellet, E. F. 1857]

Both books can be found at the Feeding America site.

Tomorrow’s Story …

A little hunting lodge.

A Previous Story for this Day …

Food related to the singer Jenny Lind was the topic.

Quotation for the Day …

Nor do I say it is filthy to eat potatoes. I do not ridicule the using of them as a sauce. What I laugh at is, the idea of the use of them being a saving; of their going further than bread; of the cultivating of them in lieu of wheat adding to the human sustenance of a country. ... As food for cattle, sheep or hogs, this is the worst of all the green and root crops; but of this I have said enough before; and therefore, I now dismiss the Potato with the hope, that I shall never again have to write the word, or see the thing. William Cobbett (1763-1835)


Anonymous said...

I'm glad he wasn't called Smith or Jones.

Andrew said...

Fascinating as always. Where do you find all this info, must take you ages.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Andrew - it doesnt really take me ages - I have been collecting resources for years. I get the "on this day" things from the (grandly called) Food History Almanac that has been a work-in-progress for a very long time. I live in hope that one day someone will want to publish it, but in the meanwhile, I have fun.