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Potato Lore



© Warren Fahey


You’ll probably find this news surprising: 2008 was the Official Year of the Potato. We’ve now had ‘official years’ for refugees, women, micro-credit, freshwater, physics, ecotourism, language and a year to celebrate the struggle against slavery and its abolition. Okay, I hear you ask, why the potato? Is the noble spud up there with the abolishment of slavery and the importance of physics? UNESCO doles these things out as a way of highlighting vital changes and challenges facing the world and the apparently the potato is right up there on the list. Considering rice had its year in 2004 one can only assume that broccoli, carrots and peas will eventually see their day, or year. Well, maybe not broccoli.

Australians should rejoice that the spotlight was turned on the spud as the mighty tuber is very much a part of our lives as we boil, bake, mash and fry it onto our table. I should point out that although Europeans have been consuming potatoes for approximately 400 years it was quite a battle to get spuds accepted. Being members of the Lily of the Valley family, apparently the tuber equivalent of the Gotti family, they were considered a no go zone and, to make matters worse, they are not mentioned in the bible as edible so were considered the ‘devil’s food’.

The potato has been around for a long, long time, being consumed in the Andes for about 8000 years before the Spaniards took it back to Europe in the 16th century, presumably to make those delicious Spanish omelettes. It is now the world’s fourth most important food crop and consumption is growing. UNESCO believed the IYP raised awareness of the importance of the potato in addressing issues of global concern including hunger, poverty and threats to the environment. That’s a lot of responsibility for a simple Sebago or Kifler to live up to!

Although the Irish are credited with being the world’s leading potato lovers, the Germans were there first. In 1581, Guttenberg’s Press offered a cookbook containing the first annotated potato recipes. Mind you, I remember my first visit to Ireland and seeing pub menus offering meat with three types of potato: chips, mashed and baked – all on the one plate.

Like most food the spud has attracted its fair share of folklore. Pregnant women were advised not to eat potato because it would result in their newborn having a small head. Irish Australians were known to rub raw potato on their sore feet and joints believing the potassium would ease their pain. One old wives tale advised carrying around a blackened spud to cure rheumatism.

Australians have always eaten potatoes and 10 bushels of potato seeds were included in the First Fleet inventory. Our ties with Ireland reinforced our love of the spud and in the early days of the colony it was not uncommon to hear someone described as a ‘not the cleanest potato’ – implying they had a convict past. Potatoes were also used to make spirits in the alcohol-fuelled colony.

The potato industry is now quite sophisticated but in years gone by digging (or ‘chipping’) potatoes was considered backbreaking work and shunned by the army of itinerant workers. I heard of one cockey down Bungaree way who was having trouble getting chippers so he advertised for ‘general farm labourers’ and this bloke arrived, asked what the work was and when he discovered it was potato chipping he reputedly said to the cockey, “Mate, this work’s not for me. I’d suggest you get onto the bloke who planted them – he might have a clue where they are!”

For over 150 years there were only a handful of varieties in our markets – the ‘snow flake’, Prince Regent and New Zealand pink-eye being the most popular – and a seasonal release of small ‘new potatoes’. The standing joke was that we had two types of potato – washed and unwashed. Old newspapers point to the potatoes being boiled with their skins on and the skins discarded at the table. They certainly were staple stomach fillers during the lean times, especially the Great Depression, when even the skins were used to make soup.

George Caley, writing in The Sydney Truth, 1916, wrote that “meanness is an unpardonable sin in the bush”. Yet there are some men whose meanness is almost miraculous in its methods. I heard a station-owner described as so mean as to compel his cook to “catch flies in the sugar basin, and shake the sugar out of their feet.” I heard a particularly mean man described as one who would “steal potatoes from a blind pig.” Of another it was said, “he would kiss a child – and steal its potato.”

The old station cooks of the shearing sheds and droving camps certainly used bags of potatoes and they were a familiar taste in stews but one rarely sees them mentioned in the inventory of travelling workers. Maybe they were too starchy alongside the ever-present damper, or too heavy and bulky to cart around in swag or kit. I did see one old bush recipe for Porkatoo Sandwich that involved a boiled potato squashed between two cooked pig’s ears. Potatoes were often wrapped in wet newspaper and cooked in campfires and were referred to as ‘roasted’ potatoes. Bush cooks who had only one billy, which was usually reserved for tea making, favoured this method. Apparently there was also a ‘Hot Potato Club’ that operated in the early part of the twentieth century for those who travelled regularly on the Manly to Circular Quay harbour steamer. Members brought a potato to place in the steamers furnace and consumed it on arrival.

Whilst potatoes were eaten boiled and baked for over 150 years, chips were not popularised as a fast food until the 1950s, partly due to the persistence of the Tasmanian Potato Marketing Board and their stands at various agricultural shows where they sold bags of hot Tasmanian Brownell chips. The availability of reliable and cheap cooking oil would have also contributed to their commercial success. As a young kid visiting the Sydney Royal Easter Show I found the smell intoxicating and a bag was one of those show must have experiences. By the way – we never called them fries, or French fries, they were always potato chips. An old possum-stirring mate of mine, Clem Parkinson, used to say:

I humbly dips me lid,
I dips it dinki di,
To the man who orders chips,
When the menu says French fries.

At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries fish and chips were available at what were considered workingmen’s cafes that, believe it or not, were oyster bars. Most seafood, including oysters, was inexpensive and plentiful. These establishments sold oyster stews, chowder, freshly shucked oysters and other crustations plus fried fish and chips. Salt and vinegar was the preferred accompaniment. Paddington, a typical inner city working-class suburb had no less than four oyster bars along its Oxford Street. King street in the CBD also had three oyster bars.

The deep fried chip came into its own with the Greek takeover of our cafes and tearooms. Fat hand-cut chips sat alongside the great Australian hamburger and, if you were feeling ravenous, you would add a couple of potato scallops, giant slices of potato coated in batter.
By this time the oyster bars had closed shop and given way to fish and chip shops – where the chips were still hand cut and packaged up in greaseproof paper and newspaper. This combo retained the heat and we would tear off the top, pour in some tomato sauce, and dip in with joy. Before the Catholic Church abandoned meatless Fridays (known as ‘fish Fridays’) the end of the week saw long queues at most fish shops. Sadly hand-cut chips have all but disappeared to be replaced by tasteless, nutritiously dodgy, commercially manufactured fries, mostly frozen and insipid. The world’s largest seller of chips, McDonalds, denies that its Golden Arches logo is comprised of two bent chips. It probably comes as no surprise that along with the countries of Ireland, Italy and Switzerland, the two giant international suppliers of frozen potatoes, McCain’s and Simplot, sponsored the International Year of the Potato.

Smith’s Potato Chips (‘The original and the best!’) were first made in a small factory in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills in 1931. Frank Smith and George Esnar had 20 gas-fired cooking pots where they produced three-penny packets of their hand packed chips that included a small sachet of salt. The first chip was invented in 1853 by an American chef, George Crum, in a response to a complaint that his French fries were too thick. For those interested in the social history of the potato crisp should check out ‘chip collector’ Myrtle Young being interviewed by Johnny Carson on YouTube. Hilarious! There’s also a starch-filled online Potato Museum (potatomuseum.com) where one can explore potato history.

Potatoes come in all shapes and sizes and hardly any main meat or fish dish is served without them. Pink Eye, Purple, Congo, Desiree, Craig, Bintje, Pontiac, Dargo, Toolang Delight, Manhattan and Winlock are just some of the varieties available. Tasmanians were the first to grow commercial potatoes in Australia in the 1840s but the Big Potato is situated in the NSW coastal town of Robertson. The big brown spud unfortunately looks more like the Big Turd but the township’s heart is in the right place. One of the most famous Australians was ‘Norm the couch potato’ who starred in health-promoting advertisements a few years back. Norm appeared to be a close relative of that other famous spud, Mr Potato Head. Probably a chip off the old block.