The Solanum tuberosum is an essential food, providing easy and cheap sustenance to millions. It is also one of the predominant culprits of obesity in the form of the French fry: our beloved mass-manufactured, deep-fried, sliced-n-salty processed potato. Additionally, it is a cultural symbol and stereotype of, you guessed it: the Irish.
Summer is a time of beautiful weather, a time of catching up on TV shows, a time of random roommates that you’ll be living with for a few short months. While my summer break certainly contained the first three, its primary defining feature was that I spent this newfound free time with four random people, known in today’s parlance as “randos.” My normal roommates were so kind as to give me some space, but not without imparting the beneficent gift of four subletters, including two besties from Ireland. The two Irish girls were a perfect pair. One was tall, the other short. They studied the same subjects. They shared a bed. They both loved potatoes.
Before I go any further into this non-fictional (read: slightly exaggerated) account of desperation and potatoes, let me preface my tale by saying that the Irish subletters and the others, boringly American, were incredibly nice people. I truly lucked out.
But enough sentimentalism. You want to hear about potatoes. We begin with a measly five-pound bag of plain russet potatoes. On their first trip to an American supermarket, the subletters from Ireland brought home a sufficient quantity of this familiar staple food. I thought I enjoyed a baked potato every now and then, but these girls, as I soon found out, could out-tater me any day of the year.
A little over a week after the purchase of the first bag, a replacement bag had to be bought. It was loved equally to its predecessor. Within just seven more days, this bag had also been depleted. People had to be starving for potatoes across the country, because they were all being eaten in my humble abode.
Then came the coup de grâce. The roommates went out at midnight one Sunday for a last minute grocery run. They had to get to the store before it closed. It was a dire emergency.
They were out of potatoes.
They reached the store with a minute to spare, just enough time to sprint to the produce aisle, grab their precious potatoes, and scamper to the checkout. This time two new bags graced our kitchen. With the usual five-pound purchase came not a three-pound bag, not even another five-pound bag, but a whopping 10-pound sack o’ tots. It couldn’t have been a metric conversion issue. No, they knew what they were getting, and they bought in bulk.
How fast would they go through these 15 total pounds? Well, it had only been four weeks and two bags were depleted. So based on the arithmetic I barely remember from grade school, they were eating approximately 2.5 pounds (or about seven medium-sized spuds) per week. Therefore, I calculated their new stock should last them six weeks. In fact, it would take them to the very end of their stay in America. Perfect timing. Nevertheless, it would be a down-to-the-wire finish; an Irish Potato Antifamine if you will.
Only a few centuries ago, potatoes were considered the devil’s food (not to be mistaken with “devil’s food,” a chocolate cake): misshapen, grown underground and not to be trusted. Around the same time, America had a pervasive distrust of immigrants, including those from Ireland. Fortunately, xenophobia and lachanophobia (fear of veggies) are not as rampant in modern society, or there would have been some major issues in my apartment.
In the midst of the potato bonanza occurring in my home, the tuber entered my life again in a wholly-unexpected way: someone very close to me was diagnosed with a Potato Allergy. Sounds made-up, right? Potatoes are taking over, replacing wheat products in many cases (thanks to the inane gluten-free health craze), thus making it increasingly difficult for the potato allergy-afflicted individual. Did you know that potato products are found in vitamin supplements? And shredded cheese? Fortunately, neither my subletters nor myself were victims of potato-induced histamine reactions.
So, does binging on russet potatoes do anything nutritious for you? It’s a starch, so it’s packed with carbs. But those carbohydrates carry zero fat, a solid portion of protein, and a surprising punch of good ol’ Vitamin C. Not too bad for a lumpy brown mass buried in the soil. Certainly not a superfood, but it definitely meets a person’s basic dietary needs.
That’s a fortunate thing for society, as potatoes have come to dominate several areas of our classic American culinary landscape. Potato chips for starters. And French fries. Oh, the French fry (or Freedom Fry, if you’re feeling particularly patriotic): mass farmed so that every potato looks identical before it is precisely sliced, frozen and shipped across the country and world prior to being fried in vast vats of oil. These massive monocultures are prone to disease, thus requiring heavier doses of pesticides. And where do these chemical end up? No answer needed.
In the meantime, my subletters bought another bag. With a month to go in America, they had depleted their entire previous spud stash. Perhaps my earlier arithmetic was off; regardless, there were now five more pounds of potatoes weighing down the pantry shelf. By this point I should have been confident in their tuber-eating abilities, but my disbelief prevented me from thinking they could finish the produce in time.
Is a hankering for potatoes ethnically encoded in Irishmen and women? I’m not sure. Let’s try a little personal comparison: just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I like matzah, and just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I like gefilte fish. Just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I like bagels. Oh, but I do. And kugel. And challah (especially with little raisins). And brisket. And lox. And rugelach. Man, it seems like it all comes back to food. I suppose cultural predilections simply create immense food cravings.
Maybe the Irish do have a predilection for potatoes. Or maybe I’m extrapolating from the cooking habits of two very nice, Irish, female, young adults. Maybe I need to travel to Ireland to continue this spud research. Or maybe my apartment-based ethnography is actually sound. So how does this story end?
They ate them all.