I took my family to see the “Bodyworld” exhibit at the UC Science Center over the holidays after hearing glowing reviews from people I knew who had seen it and all the while imagining what we might be seeing once we got there. Is it possible, I wondered, to see inside the human body to the point at which I could actually understand how it worked? To somehow see if my lower back pain were indeed connected to something else that might be going on down in the knees or ankles? In other words, would I be able to understand what was going on inside my body after looking inside the exposed and cross-sectioned specimens I finally saw at the museum?
What I found was that the human body as museum exhibit turned out to be an experience that is best understood as a whole. All the painstakingly preserved and plasticized human forms turned out (for me) to have much less impact than the living sum of their parts, in spite of the faces that were put on them or the lifelike postures in which they were posed. I have found that the key to understanding when confronted with something as complex and ubiquitous as the human body is to accept it simultaneously as a great miracle and as a mundane fact. We are all here, yet we have a hard time understanding who we are or why we exist. In the end, wondering is also a part of our existence. We can think about our lives, or just accept them on a daily basis. Which brings me to the subject of potatoes. Without farmers’ markets, we would have only three questions about potatoes: mashed, baked or French fried? We would not be curious about their origins, their unique qualities, or what they look like inside. Yet they are one of the most common of all foods; a staple, yet hardly something to celebrate.
Until now. Thanks to the imagination of Alex Weiser and a few other farmers who regularly sell at local farmers’ markets, the lowly potato has become a hot item, prized by chefs and home cooks alike. Years ago, it was the delicous Yukon Gold that got everyone excited. The Yukon, unlike the White Rose, had a creamy yellow flesh and an exceptional butter-like flavor that almost didn’t need dressing. The Yukon can be clearly identified by the pink cast to its “eyes,” the little root nodules in its skin. It was also delicious baked, but it could be a mashed potato disaster when its creamy flesh turned to sticky goo when subject to electric beaters. After the Yukon came the tender fingerling potatoes – the yellow skinned Russian Banana and the red French fingerling. These were smallish, elongated potatoes that could be roasted whole and whose shape was part of their appeal. Inside, the French fingerling sometimes exhibits a pink ring. To add to its cachet, it is surmised that this specimen arrived in the United States inside the feedbag of a horse.
Weiser Family Farms also introduced an all-blue Purple Peruvian potato with its deep blue, relatively starchy flesh. They also brought on a pink-fleshed Red Thumb potato with which one could create a red, white and blue potato salad for festive holiday occasions. The Weisers also championed the harvest of “new” potatoes — potatoes with flaky skins that have not cured long enough to be intact but which indicate an exceptionally tender, tasty potato. New potatoes must be hand dug, as each potato bed is carefully probed to extract the young specimens. Commercially grown potatoes are mechanically harvested with the equivalent of earth moving machines that uproot the entire crop all at once. Hand dug potatoes can be extracted early for optimal flavor and texture, and are a treat to enjoy. The Weiser Farm stand has also offered a little round yellow flesh German Butterball and a red blush Rose Finn fingerling, and have been selling a one-pound assortment of all their potatoes in purple mesh bags – the purple party pack.
Getting back to basics, a really fresh Russet baking potato is quite delightful. Commercially grown potatoes can be stored for months and are treated to prevent them from beginning their sprouting process. You can tell a fresh potato by its firm flesh and a lack of sprouting eyes. Stored potatoes, even yours, will develop a green cast right under the skin. This should be completely removed by peeling before consuming the inside flesh. A nice, fresh Russet needs only to be brushed with a little oil and baked right on the oven rack. Their flesh is light, flaky and has a delicate flavor.
We can enjoy fresh harvested potatoes all year round in California, thanks to the efforts of our farmers. Potatoes can be paired with almost anything for a delicious side dish or addition, and deserve to be celebrated. Like our all too familiar human form, potatoes are going to stick around for a long time. We might as well learn to appreciate them.