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Keeping Up With the Taters..

Potatoes are from the plant family Solanacea (pronounced Soh-lan-ay-seh-eee, for those that care), which is a pretty interesting family, all told. It also includes such dainties as tomatoes, egg plants, and deadly nightshade(the last one is not dainty at all and is very poisonous; Italian ladies in the Renaissance used to use juice squished from the berries to put in their eyes believe it or not, because it would make the pupils really really big, which was considered an attractive feature in that period. That’s why one of the names for the plant is “Bella Donna”. The substance was later concentrated and turned into a pharmaceutical called Atropine, which is used by ophthalmologists when you go to have your eyes checked and tested. Right? They put the drops in your eyes to make your pupil open up and stay opened up. Same deal).

All plants in the family flower and all the flowers look, in general terms, just like the picture here with the pointy part in the center and the petals reflexed back. Depending on the plant, the color of the petals might be white or lavender or blue. The big difference between potatoes, tomatoes and egg plants is that the fruit (that is, what forms from the fertilized flowers and turns into something else) from tomatoes and egg plants are edible and safe. The fruit that sometimes forms on potato flowers has HIGH levels of a substance called solanum and it is poisonous. So if you are growing potatoes and have pets or little kids that tend to wander in your garden, make sure that when your potatoes flower, once you’ve enjoyed the flowers, pinch them off so that they don’t even have a chance to form fruits. Doing this will not have any effect on the formation of tubers.

As a matter of fact, that flowering is your signal that tubers are forming and if you want to dig, with your hands, very carefully around the plants, you will be able to find the first little potatoes and eat them. They are very tasty, especially if they are boiled up gently with fresh mint. Or, you can just leave everything as it is and once the plants have completely died down, then you can dig up the entire patch and have your potato crop.

New potatoes (the ones that you’d find right after the plant flowers) have very thin tender skin; you don’t have to really scrub or peel them; just wash them very carefully and boil them right in their skins. You can also roast them. As the tubers grow and mature (and the plants will then died down), the potatoes get much larger and the skins will toughen up.

Little known factoid about the introduction of potatoes: Louis XIV was really hot to get the peasantry in France to get on the potato bandwagon. It was seen as a cheap source of food, grown easily, stored easily. Perfect for the peasants, right? Well, somehow the word got out in France that potatoes were poisonous (wonder how that happened) and nothing worked. Louis had famous cooks and chefs from Paris come up with wonderful dishes; he tried to have news sent out that they were eating potatoes at every meal to make them look cool and ‘the thing’. Nothing worked. Finally, in desperation, he decided to harness the peasants themselves. He made a big show of having big fields planted around France and putting armed guards on them, day and night. The peasants figured that whatever was in the ground must be pretty valuable and once the plants died down, he gave the guards the weekend off – sure enough, when they came back on Monday morning, all the fields were dug up and the potatoes had been stolen, to be eaten and stored by the local peasants. (OK, so perhaps the story is Apocryphal; but it sounds good).

Bon appétit!

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