CHASING an errant soccer ball into a garden 16 years ago, Tom Hughes stumbled on something that fired his imagination. Not a vibrant rose. Not a simple tulip. But something with as many subtleties and, yes, argues Mr. Hughes, beauty: the potato.
He didn't know that the lumpy tuber from the Andes, spread by the Spanish conquistadors from the New World to the Old and back again, had changed the course of world history. Nor did he know that the potato comes in a rainbow of colors, from purples and blues to soft pinks.
What he didn't know about the potato was "a major revelation," says Hughes.
Raised on the all-American meat-and-potatoes diet, the private-school teacher realized he had never actually seen a potato plant. This major food in his life was a complete mystery to him. And, he'd wager, it's a mystery to most people. Have you ever seen a potato in the ground?
What followed was a potato odyssey - and ultimately a plan for a museum that would give sustenance the kind of attention museums give to wars, airplanes, human tragedy, and the like.
Spellbound by the spud, Hughes and his journalist wife, Meredith, followed the potato trail around the world (South America, China, Europe) and wrote "The Great Potato Book" (Macmillan) for children. They are the life of the party on scholarly panels with their passionate potato commentary and are founders of The Potato Museum.
For several years the museum was a Capitol Hill fixture the Hugheses shared with the public out of their home. Today, most of it is on loan to museums in the United States and Canada.
"I know it's funny: 'potato' and 'museum.' Those two words together are hilarious, there's no way around it," says Meredith. She is aware that the things said about potatoes can have unintended humor for the uninitiated, especially when they talk about "revering," "respecting," or "celebrating" the potato.
"The potato radicalized our thinking," Meredith says. A listener cannot help thinking of the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," in which Richard Dreyfuss plays a man whose own radical vision involves sculpting a mound of mashed potatoes. That sense is only reinforced when a visitor arriving at their Great Falls home here finds Tom helping his son build, not a snowman, but a snow mushroom.
While the Hugheses are serious about their subject, they don't mind if it's humor that draws people to their ideas. The way food has influenced history and lives can be entertaining, they say. So is potato trivia. For example:
* Of the hundreds of varieties of potato, only a handful are good for making into french fries, and those are about the only kinds US consumers can easily find in supermarkets.
* Potatoes are not fattening junk food. They have saved whole populations from famine. They so improved the nutrition of farm families in Europe in the 1800s that more children survived to adulthood, providing workers for the Industrial Revolution.
* "Industrial grade" potatoes are used in making disposable diapers.
* Poland lost half its potato crop in 1980 to blight. Livestock usually fed with potatoes had to be slaughtered. The oversupply and subsequent meat shortages contributed to the economic crisis that led to Lech Walesa's rise to power.
Finding how "misunderstood" the potato is, says Tom, he and his wife became convinced that food in general is not well understood.
"You can cross Kansas and you won't see a museum exhibit about wheat. You can cross the entire Corn Husker state, there's no museum for corn. There's no place to learn about or see the things we eat. We're impoverished by this," says Tom.
The concept of the World Food Museum the Hugheses are promoting is a network that might involve food corporations, local communities, or growers exhibiting ways that food resources affect culture. The couple envisions places where visitors could see food growing, as Tom saw in the potato patch, and examples of food processing techniques.
"We feel young people should be educated about food, because the further away you get from knowing about it, the less you might be interested in supporting farmers, supporting new research into new techniques, or supporting the kind of work that has to go on if we're going to continue to feed this incredibly burgeoning population," says Meredith.
While they could not sustain the Potato Museum on his private-school teaching salary and her free-lance journalism, their devotion to the potato and food education in general has earned them impressive credentials along the way. The Potato Museum and World Food Museum boards include such renowned scientists as Norman E. Borlaug, the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the "green revolution" in Asia.
Most of their Potato Museum collection - including ancient, petrified potatoes [see photo] and Andean farming tools - is now on loan to two major museums: the Smithsonian Institution's major quincentenary exhibition, Seeds of Change; and The Amazing Potato exhibit at Canada's National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottowa.
"If we don't know about our heritage, we become just an end-user and we have no influence on it, and that's very dangerous. Take the potato ... it really is amazing that something as simple and humble really gets imaginations going. Children love it," says Valerie Collins, project manager of the Canadian potato exhibit.
"The world public is generally poorly informed about the sustenance of life and major food crops," says John S. Niederhauser, a Potato Museum board member and a winner of the World Food Prize for his work in developing disease-resistant potato breeds. "The most important issue confronting the human race is how we are going to preserve the quality of the environment and still feed the rapidly growing population into the next millennium. They [the Hugheses] provide a vehicle to get the message across."