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Homage to the humble spud

In the world of food, potatoes are finally in the limelight.

By Sue Wunder / May 7, 2008

Spectacular spuds: Potatoes aren't just delicious, they're good for you, too. To honor the tasty tuber, the United Nations dubbed 2008 the International Year of the Potato.

Larry Crowe/AP/File

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The potato is making news these days, not only for its potential role in global food security as grain prices escalate, but also as an income-generator for growers in many countries and as an ally in the developed world's quest for nutritional sanity. Boiled, potatoes pack more protein than corn and nearly twice the calcium. If you don't believe me, ask the nonprofit International Potato Center in Lima, Peru (the country where potatoes originated some 8,000 years ago), which also notes that potatoes contain lots of other nutrients – and, well, taste good.

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The United Nations has weighed in as well, naming 2008 the International Year of the Potato, a "hidden treasure" of a tuber.

I have heeded these messages, but these folks are preaching to a member of the choir here. Potatoes are among my top choices of what to eat any time of day, and the basis for a sizable personal cookbook of meals and memories.

My worst childhood faux pas – chattily remarking to a teacher we'd invited for lunch that the ceramic soup bowls were "just like the one our dog eats out of" without explaining that a chipped companion had been demoted for dog use – was closely seconded by asking, just as my mother served Thanksgiving dinner to a long table of relatives, "Are those real mashed potatoes?"

In my and my mother's defense, there was no time like the 1950s for serving up powdered and packaged versions of fresh foods. Instant potatoes were a weekday staple in our home, but they paled against potatoes freshly cooked and beaten with butter and cream for holidays. At the age of 10, I was helpless to ignore that distinction for the sake of protocol or my mother's pride.

Time or occasion permitting, she made wonderful "real" mashed spuds as well as delicious twice-baked potatoes. These were named "Mrs. Corwin potatoes," after another teacher who shared a meal of them with us (without benefit of my commentary on the china).

Potatoes, cheap and filling, helped sustain me in graduate school. When I emerged with a degree in geology, I avoided oil company employment by heading off to milk cows on a farm in southwest England. There I met Mrs. Cridge, who knew all about the potential of potatoes. On raw, wintry mornings as I headed to the cow barn, she would arrive from a neighboring village to do the household's cooking and washing up with a freshly baked and steaming tuber in her pocket – hand warmer and lunch, all in one perfect oval.

I was raised on big Idaho bakers, but I've subsequently discovered what rich varieties of this humble food exist in their unassuming mesh bags and supermarket bins. In fact – once again provided by the International Potato Center – some 5,000 types of potatoes grow worldwide. Belarus leads the world in potato consumption, each inhabitant of the eastern European state downing more than 377 pounds a year.

I believe my own household might come close to that. Yukon Golds, reds, and baby versions of each are among our favorites. We eat them mashed, steamed, boiled, or baked; fried into hash browns; and in soups, curries, and salads. It just wouldn't be home without a sack of spuds hanging from their hook in the kitchen – lumpy with humble promise.