The lowly (but versatile) potato now has its own museum

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Seven blocks from the United States Capitol building in Washington, where members of Congress have handled many hot potatoes over the years, sits the Potato Museum. To be quite literal about it, the Potato Museum is as much a collection as a museum, occupying an ever-growing proportion of the home of founder-curator E. Thomas Hughes.

Somewhere between a collector's hobby and a budding institution (it is open by appointment only), this assemblage of whimsy, memorabilia, fancy, lore, and hard-core fact may be the first and only place of its kind -- a continuing public homage to that most common and taken-for-granted of foods, Solanum tuberosum, the potato.

``We're serious but not solemn about potatoes here,'' Mr. Hughes maintains. ``The potato has lots of eyes, but no mouth. That's where I come in.''

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In existence since 1975, the museum, which opened in Washington in 1983, now has more than 2,000 items, of which 250 are displayed: a potato-powered clock; jewelry and toys made out of or resembling potatoes; menus; planting and cultivating tools and kitchen implements; potato poems, songs, stories, and jokes; a 1828 New Hampshire ``Wanted'' poster describing a scoundrel who had swiped a potato still; a three-legged Irish potato pot from which pre-famine-era families, huddled in hovels, ate boiled potatoes three to five times a day; press clippings; potato starch and potato fabric softener; potato money; and an early potato cookbook, dated 1664, called ``How to Produce Potato Cheese Cakes -- England's Happiness Increased,'' by John Forster.

The museum shows the evolution of potato cultivation from early hoes and planters and pickers' belts to the modern potato combine. It traces the tuber back to the Aymara Indians in the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands and tells the story of the potato's introduction to Europe via the Spanish conquistadors and its introduction to North America by way of Bermuda and the British colonies.

It covers every aspect of the potato -- biological, agricultural, historical, nutritional, gastronomic, and economic.

Perhaps the museum's most unusual item is the Tater-Time Clock. In 1982 Bill Borst of Elon College in North Carolina invented the digital-display, potato-powered clock. It extracts electric current through the copper and zinc probes inserted into the tuber's sides.

``The potato is an excellent source of energy for man and machine. This clock runs on two potatoes completely accurately for several weeks,'' Hughes says.

He points out that this machine is not the first to run on potatoes. During World War II, Germany's V-1 and V-2 rockets took off on alcohol made from potatoes. And from 1903 to 1906, Germany's locomotives, street lamps, stoves, and heaters worked on potato alcohol.

Quite recently the Bank of Ireland sponsored an ``artistic happening,'' Hughes says, in which potatoes were wired up to extract electric current to power a computer.

The museum started as a classroom project Hughes assigned to his grade-school students at the International School in Brussels, Belgium. The task, to find out all they could about the potato, aroused enormous interest in his students.

``The more I got into the story of the potato, the more I found that there was more to get into,'' Hughes laughs.

The project became a school exhibit that expanded into three unused classrooms, which he maintained for three years.

Eventually Hughes packed much of it in boxes. He is seeking more room in which to display the accumulated materials. Already the museum occupies his dining room and kitchen.

The back porch and downstairs bathroom are ``blighted'' with bits of the collection.

``Eventually the museum will expand into the living room,'' he says with consternation.

Once a month, Hughes's wife, Meredith, puts out a four-page publication called Peelings. (Subscription is $20 a year.).

``We have a small but intense international readership of over 100 readers,'' Hughes notes. Two subscribers live in New Zealand. Peelings contains potato esoterica.

Each month it has a different theme. One issue carried advice from playwright Charles MacArthur to his daughter when a person at a dinner table becomes too stuffy: ``Lob a wad of mashed potatoes off the back of a spoon at the victim.''

At Potato Eaters Night, every Wednesday, ``volunteers try out our 1,700 potato recipes.

From the appetizers to the desserts, everything comes from the potato.'' The ``volunteers'' come by invitation only. They bring their own potato recipe or get one from Hughes to try.

Recipes from the Potato Eaters Night are available to museum members for a $20 membership, which also includes other benefits such as free entry to the museum for a year, access to Peelings magazine, and menus from Potato Eaters Night.

Hughes and his wife will soon come out with a book called ``The Great Potato Book'' (Macmillan, $11.95), for children aged 9 to 12. They've already presold 9,000 copies.

The Potato Museum is at 704 North Carolina Avenue, SE. Tours may be arranged by writing or calling (202) 544-1558. Suggested donation per person: $2.50, for children up to age 14, $1.

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