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Can you guess which vegetable saved Europeans from frequent famines?
The potato. And there’s no better place to learn more about this magnificent, dirt-encrusted vegetable than at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, Idaho.
“We have a big display on how it changed the world,” says Tish Dahmen, executive director of the Idaho Potato Museum. “Before the potato came to Europe, it had regular famines because the people were dependent on grains.”
After the Spanish conquered the Incas in Peru, they brought the curious tuber that had been cultivated in South America for 7,000 years to Europe during the late 1500s. While Europeans were suspect at first, the plant eventually took root in the fields and minds of many, serving as the sole subsistence food for 30 percent of the population in Ireland. Once Europeans started eating them, they made all sorts of dishes out of them. Along the way, scientists discovered just how nutritious potatoes actually are. Dahmen is quick to point out that whole milk and potatoes contain almost all the necessary daily nutrients you need, including B6, iron, potassium, carbohydrates, fiber and vitamin C.
Beginning in 1845, a devastating potato blight destroyed potato crops and it became a massive humanitarian crisis. Two years after the Irish potato famine was under way, American pioneers planted a crop of potatoes in Salt Lake City and by 1860 William Goforth Nelson recorded planting and harvesting potatoes in the Cache Valley area of Idaho where potatoes are still grown today.
Mr. Potato Head toy exhibit at the Idaho Potato Museum Photo: Courtesy Southeast Idaho High Country Tourism
One of the most famous potatoes is the toy Mr. Potato Head, originally a set of parts that children stuck into a real potato in the 1950s. Today the plastic potato toy is more popular than ever with a starring role in the Toy Story movies. The toy exhibit is one of the most fun in the museum.
But don’t miss the potato signed by former vice president Dan Quayle. Vice President Quayle’s infamous misspelling of the word “potato” became fodder for broadcast newscasters, spurred on jokes from late-night talk shows and emboldened elementary school children to feel momentarily superior to one of the most powerful men in the nation.
It was June 15, 1992, when Quayle incorrectly corrected a 12-year-old’s spelling of “potato” by adding an “e” to the end of the word during a spelling bee. The signed and slightly shriveled potato came to the museum byway of a Californian disc jockey who asked Quayle to sign the potato.
You also can see a world record. In 1990, Pringles made the world’s largest potato crisp. It’s 23 inches long and 14.5 inches high and is in the Guiness Book of World Records. For those who think a potato crisp and potato chip are the same thing, think again. A chip is something sliced off of a potato. A crisp is made from potato parts. Next time you eat a chip or a Pringle, examine it closely. You’ll see the difference.
Potatoes Are for Eating and Drinking
Seeing the extensive collection of potato peelers and mashers and reading about potatoes may have you craving potatoes. Stop at the museum’s Potato Station Cafe for a potato-themed snack, ranging from a baked potato to potato salad and French fries.
But before you leave the museum, you’ll learn something else. Potatoes aren’t just great for eating. You can drink them, if you are 21 or older. They are used to make vodka. In the museum, you can learn more about the process to take this vegetable out of the ground and transform it into cocktail-worthy substance. It actually takes 9.2 potatoes to make a bottle of potato vodka. Who knew?
For some food for thought, grab a bite to eat at the museum’s quaint Potato Station Cafe where you can order baked potatoes (call ahead two hours for these), fries, potato salad and more.
Get a Potato Selfie
Courtesy Southeast Idaho High Country Tourism
As a giant ode to the wondrous vegetable, the museum has an enormous baking potato in front of the building, which once served as the Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot. Staff worked with a Boy Scout on his Eagle Scout project to install a selfie stand, so you can put your phone on the stand and then climb on the spud to get a photo. It just may end up being one of your favorites.
“There’s more to this humble spud that you can ever imagine,” Dahmen says.
For more information:
130 Northwest Main Street, Blackfoot, ID 83221