Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Potatoes with a Northwest Flavor

I have to begin this post with a disclaimer: My husband, though he's lived here for several decades and now considers himself an Oregonian, descends from a long line of New England potato farmers, famous for growing varieties with names like Kennebec, Katahdin and Green Mountain. Growing up, the children of his small town in Maine were let out of school for a period in the fall to help with the potato harvest. He is quick to tell of the time that his right arm was pulled into the potato harvester when his sleeve caught in it, and of the child whose arm had to be amputated in the field in a similar incident.

This history also means that he considers any potatoes grown elsewhere as inferior, pooh-poohing them as being "grown in sand" rather than in the rich soil of his native land. Though I think he would cede some props to the Ozette potato, a variety that was brought to the Northwest by Spanish explorers more than two centuries ago.

Originally picked up by the Spaniards in South America, the potatoes came on ships sent to establish beachheads on the west coast of America. One fort was built on the northwestern tip of what is now Washington state, where the Pacific meets mouth of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. Apparently the settlement didn't work out for the Spanish, and they left after only one year.

The native people of the area, members of the Makah tribe, found the potatoes in the overgrown gardens of the settlement and propagated them, naming this new food after one of the five villages in the area of Neah Bay. Because of the relative isolation of the region, these small, flavorful fingerlings maintained their unique heritage and weren't known to the outside world until the 1980s.

The Ozette potato was cataloged and seed was grown outside the region, and in 2005 it was added to the Slow Food Ark of Taste. In 2006 a partnership called a Presidium was formed to promote the potato and encourage farmers and individuals to grow it. Recently the Herbfarm in Washington offered seed to Northwest gardeners, and my neighbor Susana, co-owner of Portland's Culinary Workshop, volunteered to grow them in in the workshop's large vegetable garden.

If you're interested in growing this native potato yourself, check out the links above for information on where to get your own seed. I'll keep you posted as Susana's grow!


J.E. Mauger said...

"...the Makah tribe, part of the Coast Salish nation..."

The Makahs speak what anthropologists call a "Nootkan" language and are are culturally and geneologically most closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulh, the native peoples of the west coast of Vancouver Island. The Makahs are not of the Salish nation, either linguistically, culturally, or genaeologically: They speak a "Nootkan" language and are are c most closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulh, the native peoples of the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Thanks, J.E., for the clarification. I'll make the correction!