Belfast, Maine — It's no secret that Maine has long been romanced by the potato. Never mind that the domesticated spud only arrived in North America in 1719. Once ensconced in Maine, the lowly tuber brought glory to that most northern province. For 30 years, up until the 1950s, Aroostook County farmers led the country in potato production. No small potatoes, even today when Maine ranks third behind rival spud-producing states Idaho and Washington.
But all this doesn't bother Ted Starret. He jumped on his own potato bandwagon four years ago when he caught the scent of a new potato product: deep-fried potato skins. Most people apparently eat them as an appetizer, with melted cheese, sour cream, or butter.
''Quiche of the '80s,'' whispered some. That was good enough for Mr. Starret, who was no stranger to the potato's potential. For over 25 years, he and his sons, Bruce and Rick, have annually trundled millions of pounds of Maine round whites through their three-story potato-processing factory just footsteps from the Belfast harbor. Dusty and dumpy in shape, the spuds came in by the truckload and bounce out frozen hard as rocks and uniformly shaped with three perfect paprika sprinkles: baked, stuffed potatoes - sour cream and chive or cheese-filled, take your pick.
Business was good, but not as good as it is now that Starret has added potato-skin processing to his production portfolio. One of only a handful of potato-skin producers, Starret sells as many skins as he can process. He had to buy the factory next door to keep up with the demand, now in the millions of pounds yearly.
Despite the current slump in the potato market, the sky seems the limit as far as the skins go. Starret's frozen-food broker down in Massachusetts takes care of all the potato-skin sales in New England, and he reports a brisk business of 1,500 cases (at 24 pounds a case) sold each week. Howard Johnson's Ground Round restaurants buy a million and a half pounds of Starret's skins each year and call them ''one of our most popular side orders on the menu in years.'' Another regional chain, the 99's restaurants, which originally asked Penobscot Frozen Foods to produce the skins, moves 175,000 pounds of skins each year, ''our second-most-popular appetizer after our shrimp cocktail,'' a company spokesman says.
But perhaps some potato lore is needed to put all this talk of production levels and popularity in proportion. The last time we looked, potatoes were the bad guys of the dinner table, the Edsel of the vegetable world - too fattening. But now, even Town and Country magazine has put ''The Gourmet Spud'' on its cover. This new fascination with potato skins seems incongruous. Or does it? Americans have enjoyed disguising their relish for the starchy vegetable. While the rest of the world dines largely and happily on fresh potatoes, Americans prefer their potatoes as chips, fries, or instant mashed - processed, in other words. Annually, 30 to 35 billion pounds of potatoes are consumed within US boundaries - that's about 116 pounds per person, according to the National Potato Promotion Board in Denver. But of that tonnage, about 65 percent have been processed - mostly into French fries.
Actually, there is quite a bit of potato heritage if one is willing to dig for it. While the United States is currently third in potato production (behind the Soviet Union and Poland), North Americans were a bit late in coming to the table when it came to potatoes. Wild potatoes were found as far north as Nebraska, but it was really the South American Inca indians who first cultivated them. They even fashioned jewelry and pottery in potato shapes. It wasn't until 16th-century Spanish explorers set foot in Peru that the potato began the journey to Europe. After a few years of remaining a botanical oddity there, it became wildly popular and soon made its way back across the Atlantic to the northern half of the New World. And now to Ted Starret's factory.
* ''Use your nose'' is probably as good advice as any to get to Penobscot Frozen Foods. First off, steer toward the briny smell of the ocean. That means taking a right at the only stoplight here in Belfast. Then, when you've got the water sighted, take another right and stop when you smell potatoes cooking. Because they are: 50,000 pounds a day on a conveyor belt as wide as a car and a lot longer. (If you go too far, you'll hit Penobscot Poultry - definitely not so aromatic.)
On a winter day as crisp as a potato chip, Ted Starret, like any self-respecting Down Easter, is vacationing in Florida. ''Not only is the man brillant, but he's in Florida,'' says son Rick.
Rick and brother Bruce have been left in charge. ''Right now we're doing about 60-40. Sixty percent skins, and 40 percent baked stuff,'' Rick explains. To his right is a supermarket density map. To his left, there is a large chalkboard covered with what look like hieroglyphics decipherable only to someone with an accredited MBA. ''It's really very simple: SC means sour cream and chive, and C means cheese.'' Little check marks under the SC and C labels also line up with names of cities. Penobscot Foods reaches all the way from Albany, N.Y., to Tampa, Fla., and up into Halifax, Nova Scotia. Some of the containers are even printed in French: ''Pommes de terre.'' ''Bilingual,'' Rick says.
A few phone calls later (''Well, how much is a booth at the convention?''), Rick launches into the discovery of potato-skin production. ''Four or five years ago, one of our spice suppliers suggested we get into making potato skins. We thought he was crazy, so we didn't. But then a national restaurant chain (Dallas-based Friday's) started doing their own and made money on them. So a local restaurant chain quickly asked us if we would make them some, and that's how we got into it.''
While no restaurant in town buys the local skins, plenty of other eateries do. Besides Ground Round and 99's restaurants, their customers include Magic Pan , Hyatt Regency Hotels, and some other, local chains. During their first year of skins production the Starrets sold 5,000 pounds of processed potato skins. Today , four years later, they expect to peddle 7 million to 10 million pounds - more than half their total volume.
Downstairs, a persistent sawing and thumping beckons like a siren call of the industrial age. Down the rickety wooden steps, across the sagging wood floor, one comes face to face with a small mountain of Maine round whites. ''Lots of manufacturers out West use an Idaho russet potato,'' Rick says. ''But I don't think russets are as good. For a home-baked potato, I'll take a round white anytime. They're moister.'' He's loyal to the potato his state produces. Besides, transportation costs figure in significantly when you're selling a box of four baked-stuffed potatoes for less than a dollar. Even bringing the spuds down from Aroostook County costs the Starrets a penny a pound - $400,000 for the 40 million pounds they'll go through this year.
But back to the potatoes. Most of the ones here, tumbling softly to the bottom of the heap where a sluicing stream of water gently washes them and starts them on their voyage, are 3 to 4 inches in diameter. ''Chef-size,'' says Rick, holding one aloft. They look a lot like lumpy grapefruit. ''This one here is a 'bull potato,' '' he adds, grabbing a stray that is the size and color of a small football. ''This is the largest we get.''
After their two-step bath (water stream and submersion), the process gets a lot noiser. The ovens are next; six of them, with double-decker conveyor belts that carry the potatoes underneath the radiating electric coils. ''It takes about an hour and a quarter to cook them all. First part of the oven is about 510 degrees. Exit temperature is only 210 degrees.'' Exit aroma is positively Proustian. It speaks to a man through his nostrils and memory of fine, home-cooked meals.
Who knows what they're called, but the machines that come next are meant to gouge the meat out of the potatoes. That is, after the hot potatoes have been grabbed by a crew of blue-smocked women who slice them swiftly in half and shove them into what look like oversize muffin tins. What doesn't fit into the tins is cut up and ground together with powdered milk, butter, salt, and Parmesan cheese for the filling. ''It takes the meat of five potatoes to fill three,'' says Rick. ''For years we were discarding skins as pig swill. Now we save them.''
Whether their destiny is to be baked-stuffed or skins, all the potatoes, now open and steaming, shuttle under the rows of metal teeth that lower and chew out the inner potato, leaving the perfect hollow skin. It is after this fast and furious process that the potatoes are segregated - those to be simply flash frozen as is, and those to be filled with the cheesy potato mixture that gushes into the potato shells like soft ice cream. A little roller in a bin of paprika turns continuously, rhythmically dropping three paprika dots on each orangey spud.
The flash freezer compartment seems anticlimatic. A big, multilayered carrousel that turns and turns inside, the freezer has all the charm of a meat locker. But a glance reveals the potatoes jauntily going around as if on a carnival ride. At the other end, a suspicious clatter testifies to the frozen potatoes' durability. They rattle down a conveyor belt as unaffected as stones. Not even the sprinkles of paprika are dislodged.
Upstairs, more blue-smocked women (some have been working here for 30 years) sort the frozen baked-stuffed potatoes from the frozen skins. One final process before the potatoes come to rest in their brown packing boxes: Some of the skins are sliced lengthwise on a buzz saw making them more like French fries. ''We call them 'splits,' Rick says. ''The ones we don't saw are 'cups.' We sell more splits than cups, 75 cents a pound wholesale. We feel they're just better than a French fry.''