Monday, November 21, 2016

Moon Balls

I love potatoes in all their forms—even raw—but especially hash browns, latkes, French fries, baked potatoes, soufflés, puffs, pastries, and homefries. And vodka. Don’t get me started on vodka. Please don’t! The last time I imbibed potato liquor I wound up hiring a bicycle taxi to pedal five people to my mother’s house for a nightcap. Mom was delighted; the taxi-cyclist quite a bit less so.

The word “potato” comes from the Taíno word batata, which evolved to Spanish patata, and finally the English word “potato.” I much prefer the evocative French term of pomme de terre, meaning “apple of the earth.” This generous designation grants a higher status—the burnished apple with all its attendant glory.

Idioms involving potatoes are often pejorative: couch potato, small potatoes, dropped like a hot potato. My goal is to rectify this unfair politicization by becoming a literary Johnny Potato Eye, wandering America planting potatoes for the future of our species. This essay is my first salvo into the shallow furrows of potato meadows.

I consider myself fortunate to be alive during the renaissance of the lowly spud, the Solanum tuberosum, making me an avowed “tuberist.” The local Kroger, country stores, gas stations, and fancy food joints offer multiple variations of my favorite snack food. New chips proliferate more often than David Bowie reinvented himself. He never released a weak record, but awful chips abound: Dill Pickle, Hamburger, Steak & Eggs, Biscuit & Gravy, Chicken & Waffles, Home Run Hot Dog, Cajun Squirrel, Butter Garlic Scallop, and Bacon Mac & Cheese. Eager aficionados of chip culture have also endured baked chips, a dreadful concept. Low-fat chips entered the fray, typically including extra salt to make up for the lost oil, while unsalted chips are greasy as possum meat.

Potato chips have become so popular that manufacturers compete using clever marketing on the bag itself. The standard trope is a means to distinguish their product from all the others as if the chips were designed by a gourmet, carefully assembled from the best raw material. One common element is the insistence that the chips in question are cooked in single batches. After careful and intensive research, I’ve learned that all chips are cooked in single batches. It’s far too cost-prohibitive to make them one at a time. What’s important is how big the damn batch is! A 200-gallon vat of month-old oil is still a “single batch.” Equally irritating are trendy catchphrases such as “organic growing” and “sustainable harvest” and “ecologically sound.” These are potato chips, not luxury furs or koi fish.

(I once knew an actor who spent five thousand dollars for a koi pond, and another ten thousand for a single fish. He hosted a party to celebrate his acquisition, then watched in horror as a hawk dropped from the sky and took the fish. I laughed like the dickens and was never invited back to his house. Actors . . . They receive a great deal of attention for people who speak in sentences someone else writes for them.) (...)

The origin of the potato chip is shrouded in mystery, much like the invention of the wheel or the constuction of the ancient pyramids. Many legends have accrued. In 1973 the St. Regis Paper Company manufactured bags for potato chips. Part of their advertising campaign insisted that chips were originally known as “Saratoga Crunch Chips.” Three years later the Snack Food Association held its annual convention. At this austere gathering in Saratoga Springs, New York, it was decreed that a local restaurant, Moon Lake House, had invented the potato chip in 1853. According to an article in the Watertown Daily Times, the shipping and railroad robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt had complained to a waiter that his French fries were too thick. He sent them back to the kitchen. The irritated chef sliced his potatoes extremely thin, fried them to a crisp, and salted them. Vanderbilt loved them!

This anecdote is politely termed “apocryphal,” which traditionally means an outright fabrication. In the absence of corroboration, the story mainly serves to promote potato chips through association with a rich industrialist. Other people are credited with originating the chip, including the chef George Crum, his assistant Kate Wicks, manager Hiram Thomas, and restaurant owner Cary Moon. Despite the murky origin, it’s clear that Saratoga Springs is trying to claim the potato chip! This honor was challenged by a restaurateur in Troy, New York, who said “Old Flora,” an African-American cook, invented the snack. The feud became so heated that in August 1882, chip rival Cary Moon wrote a letter to the Troy Daily Times saying that he’d never heard of Flora and believed she was “base fabric of the brain.” (No one really knows what that means.) In 1893 the New York Times failed to set the matter straight with its assertion that the chip was invented by Cary Moon’s second wife, a woman with the phenomenally cool name of Freelove Moon.

Unfortunately for Saratoga Springs, Troy, Freelove, and Vanderbilt, the first recipe for the potato chip had already appeared thirty years earlier in an 1822 British cookbook: The Cook’s Oracle by William Kitchiner. Two years later, Mary Randolph published The Virginia House-Wife and included a recipe for potato chips.

by Chris Offutt, Oxford American | Read more:
Image: Detail from Miracle Chips®, 2010, by John Baldessari