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A Tale of Two Potatoes

posted Jan 27, 2013, 10:39 AM by Western Sonoma County Historical Society   [ updated Jan 27, 2013, 10:41 AM ]

A tale of two potatoes, each with its own Sonoma County connection

Digging Up History

Digging Up History

By: Lynda Hopkins

Photography by Sarah Bradbury

Discoveries, A Sonoma West Magazine
Winter 2012/13


RIGHT: An illustration of Luther Burbank's russet potato, photographed from "The Potato" by E. H. Grubb and W. S. Guilford (Doubleday and Page Company, 1912)

LOWER LEFT: A historical photograph of Luther Burbank, courtesy of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa.

LOWER RIGHT: Elissa Rubin-Mahon, a Slow Food member and a champion of Bodega Red's revitalization, hold her crop of Bodega Red potatoes.

When it comes to potatoes, Sonoma County has two standouts: the Bodega Red and the Russet Burbank. But the two tubers couldn’t be more different, both in how they began their journey and how—years later—they’ve ended up.

The Russet Burbank is decidedly the rock star of the spud scene. It’s the quintessential American potato, the one that turned Idaho into the spud state. It’s the potato that can be found across the continent in fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and home ovens. (McDonald’s alone purchases more than 3.4 billion pounds of Russet Burbanks annually. The state of Idaho grows approximately 12 billion pounds.)

And while it wasn’t specifically developed in Sonoma County, in a roundabout way, our county is the reason why the potato is so ubiquitous.

It was 1872 when Luther Burbank found a single seed ball on an Early Rose potato plant growing in his New England garden. When mature, the fruit disappeared from the potato stem, sending Burbank on a frantic search.

As he wrote, “So day after day I returned and took up the search again and at last, this patient search was rewarded. The missing seed ball was found.”

But the drama did not end there.

“From that he had 23 seeds. He planted all 23 and all of them grew the following year. But most of them weren't good for anything. Some of them were really pretty, but when he dug them up they got all mushy and had no commercial value, and some had really deep eyes,” said Rachel Spaeth, garden coordinator for Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa.?

“He had one perfect potato that was yellow with a little bit of a rough skin. From that he was able to replant the eyes the next year and get a decent crop out of it.”

This potato was to be Burbank’s ticket to sunny Sonoma County. He offered the potato to a gentleman from Massachusetts for $500, and the gentleman bargained him down to $150.

“He used that money to come to California,” Spaeth explained.

“But that really inspired him and piqued his curiosity, and really gave him that drive to learn more about things in breeding and the plant realm. And he used that money to come out and join his brothers out here.”

After his potato sold and spread across the country, it took a genetic twist in Denver, Colorado—when a man selected a chance sport off a Burbank potato plant that happened to be resistant to blight. The current form of the Russet Burbank is in many ways the perfect commercial potato.

“It’s got pretty stable genetics and you can't really add too much to it and improve on it. It's definitely different than most of the Andean potatoes that you would see. The Burbank russet potato is actually resistant to phytopthera infestans … the infection that caused the Irish potato famine. That's the significance of the Burbank potato. It's also the most widely spread, commercially used [potato], as far as McDonald's French fries,” Spaeth said.

It also has another excellent commercial quality: it stores and ships well.

“They had a much higher starch content which made them ship better because they weren't as susceptible to rot,” explained Erin Sheffield, a docent at Burbank’s Home and Gardens as well as at Burbank’s Gold Ridge Experiment Farm.?

But the significance of the potato for Sonoma County has less to do with commercial value and more to do with Burbank himself. Without discovering and selling his russet potato, Luther Burbank may not have lived here. Residents may not be growing Santa Rosa plums, Shasta daisies or spineless cacti today. And folks would not be able to wander his home and gardens in downtown Santa Rosa, marveling at his creations and wondering at the mind behind it all.

“He only had a high school education, so he wasn't restricted by the confines of what science told him he could and could not do. And he was definitely a keen observer. He could pick one seedling out of 500 seedlings and say, that is the one that I want,” Spaeth said.

The Bodega Red is another matter entirely: a potato considerably more mysterious and elusive than the Burbank. In fact, one might call the Bodega Red a cult potato—a tuber that’s very difficult to find, but one that inspires passion for preservation within the Sonoma County community.

“Local legends alternately say that a South American sailor jumped ship with the potato and began to grow it. Another states that it came sewn into the hem of a soon-to-be Latin American bride of a Bodega Bay landowner. However it arrived, the potato flourished,” wrote Elissa Rubin-Mahon, a Slow Food member and one of the potato’s early champions.

Rubin-Mahon’s research suggests that Sonoma County’s first cash crop was potatoes and that—even more surprisingly—the county grew the most potatoes in all of California in the 1850s. She estimates that 60,000 sacks were shipped from Bodega Bay to San Francisco annually, feeding San Franciscans and forty-niners as far afield as the Sierra Nevada mountains.

But when Rubin-Mahon put feelers out into the local community to try to find someone still growing these heritage potatoes, she hit roadblocks.

“I went into the phone book and found who the old families were, and I talked to them about the potato. Nobody would come forward with anything... I think it was basically because I was considered a foreigner as far as the old families were concerned,” Rubin-Mahon said.

But another potato crusader, Abigail Meyers, had better luck.

“A friend of mine through Slow Food knew Abigail Meyers, who was then the director of Bodega Land Trust... She put the word out and a family member came forward anonymously because the family really did not want to release the potato,” Rubin-Mahon recalled.

That anonymous donor provided five small potatoes, about the size of one’s pinky finger. Meyers grew them out to create more.

From there, the potato took off. Collaboration with a potato expert at UC Davis confirmed that the women had indeed found a distinct strain of potato—one that likely originated in Chile. The potato’s proud history and endangered status led it to become part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, giving the humble spud national recognition.

And perhaps most importantly, collaboration with U.C. Davis led to another connection: contact with Pure Potato, a small company that specializes in developing seed potatoes from endangered heirlooms.

Unfortunately, the Bodega Red is very susceptible to disease. But Pure Potato was able to isolate a virus-free strain of potato, which local farmers were able to grow in substantial amounts for the first time this year.

The next challenge is convincing the Bay Area community that the Bodega Red is the best thing since... well, not sliced bread, but perhaps the Russet Burbank.

“If you don’t have a market, if people don’t want to buy it, there’s no reason for the farmers to grow it. We have to create a demand for the potatoes so that the farmers see a reason to grow it,” Rubin-Mahon said, noting that a committee was in the process of forming to help preserve the potato, including promoting awareness among local restaurants and grocers.

And of course the biggest question is: how does the Bodega Red taste? Rubin-Mahon has been growing the potato for years (the virus-susceptible strain), but the supply of seed potatoes was so limited she kept everything she grew to re-plant. For the first time this year, she was able to eat the Bodega Red.

“This year, we started eating what we grew. The texture is kind of between a red potato and a Yukon gold. They’re kind of creamy, they have a nice thin skin so we’ve been basically steaming them and having them with a little bit of butter and cream just very simply. But when the weather gets a little cooler I’m going to try them in a gratin, because it will hold together but still be creamy,” Rubin-Mahon said.

“They have a really nice nutty flavor and the skin is not bitter.”

For information about how to obtain seed potatoes of the Bodega Red, where to buy mature Bodega Red potatoes, or to support the preservation effort, contact Rubin-Mahon at elissa@artisanpreserves.com.