Ode to the Potato – Barbara Hamby

"They eat a lot of French fries here," my mother
announces after a week in Paris, and she's right,
not only about les pommes frites but the celestial tuber
in all its forms: rotie, purée, not to mention
au gratin or boiled and oiled in la saladeniçoise.
Batataedulis discovered by gold-mad conquistadors
in the West Indies, and only a 100 years later
inThe Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff cries,
"Let the skieraine Potatoes," for what would we be
without you—lost in a sea of fried turnips,
mashed beets, roasted parsnips? Micorazón, moncoeur,
my core is not the heart but the stomach, tuber
of the body, its hollow stem the throat and esophagus,
leafing out to the nose and eyes and mouth. Hail
the conquering spud, all its names marvelous: Solanum
tuberosum, Igname, Caribe, Russian Banana, Yukon Gold.
When you turned black, Ireland mourned. O Mr. Potato Head,
how many deals can a man make before he stops being
small potatoes? How many men can a woman drop
like a hot potato? Eat it cooked or raw like an apple
with salt of the earth, apple of the earth, pomme de terre.
Tuber, tuber burning bright in a kingdom without light,
deep within the earth where the Incan potato gods rule,
forging their golden orbs for the world's ravening gorge.

"Ode to the Potato" by Barbara Hamby, from Babel. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.

Ontario Demands Yellow-Fleshed Potatoes

Oh, the potato. A staple, a necessity and an absolute must for every kitchen across Canada, and the world. The Yukon Gold potato is one variety that is especially well-known and loved, and this year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth of this golden tuber – and its lesser-known Canadian creator, Garnet (Gary) Johnston.

2Created in 1966, the Yukon Gold was discovered by Gary Johnston of Alma, Ontario. In the 1950s, as the country began to grow, Ontario saw a surge of settlers from Europe.

From a letter written by Johnston in 1998: “In this century and earlier, many Dutch and Belgians came to Canada. Many settled in the Late Erie area called the “Banana Belt,” [due to the growth of bananas on Point Pelee] the principal towns being Simcoe, Leamington and Harrow. Later many settled in the Bradford-Holland Marsh … these new Canadians became mainly vegetable growers – potatoes, onions, carrots, sweet corn, etc.”

A Man and His Potato

johnston

At this time, Ontario did not have its own yellow-fleshed potato, and many growers in the “Banana Belt” were petitioning for the breeding and licensing of a yellow-fleshed potato variety – similar to the ones they were used to in Europe.

Johnston, who was working at the Ontario Agricultural College in 1953,started work towards the Yukon Gold variety after a graduate student brought him yellow-fleshed tubers from the Cuzco region of Peru. These small, rough, deep yellow-eyed potatoes, grown by the Indigenous Quechuan people in the Andes regions, were “indeed a delicacy,” Johnston notes.Soon after trying them, he was inspired to give Ontarians the yellow-fleshed potatoes they demanded.

As he researched, Johnston began considering ways to bring this potato to Canada and breed “Norgleam,” a North Dakotan variety, with a wild South American yellow-fleshed variety. The potato existed as a pedigree and in 1980 was marketed and distributed under the name of Yukon Gold. It was the first Canadian potato to be brandished on a potato bag and widely marketed across the world.

Why Yukon Gold?

In a letter written by Johnston in 1998 to a colleague, he states, “I suggested the name YUKON (for the Yukon River and gold rush country) and Charlie Bishop [a colleague] suggested we add the word GOLD, so it officially became YUKON GOLD.” Two potatoes from different continents came together to bring us the taste we know and love, and now is shared around the globe in countries such as USA, Japan, the Philippines, Algeria and Brazil.

Johnston, who passed away in 2000, did not stop finding successes in potato breeding. He helped release other potato varieties such as Huron, York, Red Gold, Rose Gold, Ruby Gold and Royal Gold.

A thank you to Alexander York for sharing this wonderful story with us – and giving us a glimpse into the history behind this cultural icon, and a potato that can’t be ignored.

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