You say 'potato,' but I say 'Green Mountain'

As with apples and money, bad potatoes drive good potatoes out of circulation. The basic culprit, perhaps, is our sweet housewife, who no longer steps to the produce counter to say with stern purpose, "I want a peck of Green Mountain potatoes."

Some years ago we were in Fort Fairfield, Maine, over a snappy January weekend. At breakfast time we tied on our snowshoes and stepped out our third-floor hotel window onto the snowbank and went across the patio to the dining room to have breakfast.

The thermometer hadn't gone down to minus 45 degrees F. since last Tuesday, so we found the dining room full of local people in their shirtsleeves complaining about the heat wave. I did feel socially disgraced in my reefer and scarf. They asked how I could stand that heavy jacket on a hot day.

Then the waitress brought breakfasts with hashed-brown Green Mountains, and conversation lulled. Fort Fairfield was the leading potato shipper of Aroostook County and averaged 300 boxcars a day. That would make three trains, each more than a mile long. I accent the Fort Fairfield winter temperature because I'm about to speak of quite another reefer.

Your dictionary says a "reefer" is a short jacket of heavy cloth. It is also a railway boxcar with controlled temperature for moving Maine potatoes to market in cold weather, which prevails often. In the beginning, a reefer was the usual boxcar with paper insulation added and a small charcoal heater.

The leading varieties of potatoes were Green Mountain and Irish Cobbler, both excellent for table. They were grown as such, shipped as such, asked for as such, and sold by name. When a lady asked for Green Mountains, that's what she got, and she didn't want any other. To spare you the trouble, I have already consulted the encyclopedia.

The common tater, which originated in South America, is of the nightshade family. It was introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers and quickly became staple with all temperate-zone peoples. Later, it was reintroduced to America. The soil and climate of northern Maine were ideal for the potato, and Aroostook potatoes became big business.

The favorite and best of all potato varieties was the Green Mountain, but it was not a high yielder. The plants didn't produce heavily, and to the farmer this meant fewer bushels per acre. What we needed was quantity, and botanists went to work.

Today it is hard to find a Green Mountain potato. Housewives no longer ask for them, and produce clerks never heard of them. The bag in the store just says "potatoes." If you ask what variety they are, you get a shrug. Whatever they are, they make more potatoes than Green Mountains.

In Aroostook County, an occasional farmer still plants a row or two of Green Mountains for his family, and we are fortunate to have friends who know where to find some. When Art and Ruth and Frank fail us, we'll be bereft indeed. Now back to reefers.

Once potatoes are harvested, they must not be exposed to frost. Potatoes just lifted from the soil are rushed to storage in tater-houses, buildings designed with three sides below ground and a roof that seems to have no building below, except for a doorway.

Tater-houses are heated. Brokers, dealers, and related services have trackside offices and heated warehouses, and the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad owns the boxcars, or reefers. Early reefers soon gave way to cars built on purpose for potatoes. These had stoves that burned wood with flues through the roof.

Later, automatic alcohol heaters were used. Still later, reefers had refrigeration as well as heat. Dick Sprague, retired officer of the Bangor & Aroostook, says they owned a good 1,500 reefer cars, more than any other railroad except the giant Santa Fe.

The reefers called for an attendant who would stoke and check the heaters en route, and he was called a tater-bug. He rode in the caboose with the train crew, and you could tell him by his complexion and disposition. He functioned every time the train stopped. His tremendous responsibility was to make sure every potato arrived unfrosted. On the return trip, he rode Pullman and enjoyed style, then tater-bugged another train.

When Aroostook potatoes were at last safely delivered to customers all over the country, the problem of storing the reefers was neatly solved. The Bangor & Aroostook didn't have enough idle track to accommodate the fleet, so the reefers were rented to California for the summer and used to transport fruits and vegetables grown there. They were returned in the fall, serviced for potato handling.

The Bangor & Aroostook Railway logo said, "BAR Serving Northern Maine." That logo got wide exposure as the reefers visited every American railroad yard, winter and summer, making the line the best known in the nation.

But the Maine potato got "improved," and we began eating Chippewas, Katahdins, Sebagos, and kinds we never knew before. All we could say was that they yielded better than Green Mountains.

But when we tucked in the napkin and reached for the butter, there was a difference. We've been living high on the charity of our Aroostook friends, but the bag under the sink is drooped.

Until next fall, it's the supermarket, where the bags just say "potatoes."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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