I love potatoes! When God decided to put some vegetables on earth, he couldn't have done a much better job than when he developed potatoes. I've often wondered why he didn't let Moses or Abraham in on the potato? It is difficult to believe that the rest of the world didn't have potatoes until Columbus brought them back to Europe. The Native Americans, especially those, who lived in Central and South America, had grown and eaten potatoes for centuries before 1500 A.D. Potatoes didn't start in Idaho or Ireland but these places surely have a reputation for them now.
The early settlers in Iowa grew potatoes, a stable dish on most tables. During The Depression of the 1930s and 1940s, there was many a family that had potatoes three meals a day. They were boiled for lunch and the remainder fried for supper. What was left over was eaten for breakfast the next day. An interesting theory is "where the West begins" is the eastern limit of restaurants that serve hash browns automatically when you order breakfast eggs.
Very few of us who grew in that period had "boughten" potatoes as our families grew them in their own gardens. My father had three big town lots that we planted in the spring, tended in the summer and dug up in the fall. Back of my grandfather and uncle's house, they had a huge lot they gardened on shares with the owner.
Early in the spring we would hire some fellow to bring his team of horses and trailing plow to open up the lots. After he plowed the soil, he would use a drag to break up the clods and smooth the soil. It was fun to walk behind the freshly turned black dirt and gather worms. If there were any clods left, we still might have to break them up with a hoe and rake. That wasn't much fun.
Before planting the potatoes my grandfather, especially, spent a great deal of time cutting the potatoes to plant. He always made sure that each eye in the potato had at least one inch of skin around it. Getting that square inch around the potato eye wasn't always possible but that was the "rule of thumb." We would let the cut-up spuds set for a few days and then took them out to plant. Some people had potato planters but most just carried a pail along with the potato chunks inside.
Before planting, we had to dig a furrow. Most people used a hand plow. A ball of twine was used to mark the rows. By tying the twine to one stake and then puling the string tight to a stake at the other end of the garden we could plow a straight row. My folks planted their potatoes at least five or six inches below the surface, but others had other measurements as to depth. One theory or an "old timer's tale" maintained that root crops (carrots, potatoes, onions and radishes) should be planted during the dark of the moon cycle.
As we walked down the furrow, we dropped a potato chunk, stepped on it, and using our shoes as measurement dropped the next on about one foot further down the rows. This was the way I remember my folks planting spuds. After we had the potato chunks in the ground we covered them up with dirt and then walked the rows to pack the dirt around the chunks.
Weeds surely can grow in the fertile soil of Iowa and we had to be constantly on guard to keep the new fresh potato plants from being engulfed by weeds. After the plants began to show, we could hoe around them fairly easily and still plow between the rows with a hand plow. My father and grandfather worked during the day so any weeding must to be done after work. This was not easy because I don't mean five days a week, but six, and not eight hours, but usually 10. They never worked in the gardens on Sunday, as that was Church Day and a day of rest. We also didn't have to worry about Daylight Savings Time.
Probably the worst problem that the spud growers had to contend with during those Depression years was the potato bug. That rascal could eat most of the leaves off the growing plant, so we either picked them off or sprayed a chemical on the plants to kill the bugs. That chemical called Paris Green has long been banned from use. It was very poisonous and killed the bugs but could also do people some harm. Maybe it was bad, but most of us who lived during those days didn't seem to get sick or suffer from the effects of the spray and I know for a fact it didn't hurt the taste of the spuds.
After the potatoes began to grow and last year's entire crop of spuds was gone, we could go out and dig some new ones. Those new potatoes were a treat. They were marble-sized and I never could resist eating them raw. Washed off and mixed with the first crop of garden peas and creamed, they made a dish fit for a king. I remember eating it poured over toast or just by itself until I would almost burst because they tasted so good.
After the potatoes were dug they were left to dry somewhat on the ground and then gathered to bring into the house or the root cellar. Many of the farms and even some of the houses in town had cyclone cellars. The potatoes, apples, carrots and all sorts of vegetables and fruit were stored in those cellars.
Most of us had a fruit room or potato bin in the basement that we put the spuds in. It was dark, cool and away from the ever present furnace. The potatoes could stay that way clear through the winter, spring and even until the next crop if they were watched very carefully. Some people put them in sand, but in our family they were stored in a bin in the dark and kept cool. It was one of my first jobs around the house to go down into the dark room and bring up some of those spuds -- not that easy for a child but we soon learned to overcome our fears of the dark and the unknown. I do know that our family ate lots of potato soup, mashed potatoes, boiled, fried and scalloped potatoes but I never got tired of eating them fixed any way.
One of my first ventures into the world of Capitalism and selling was with potatoes. After I'd helped my folks hoe and dig the potatoes, Dad said I could go out and sell some. I gathered up a bunch of them, took them home, washed them and filled up several grocery sacks. Placing them in my little red wagon, I started down the street knocking on doors selling potatoes. If I remember correctly, they sold for 25 cents a bag. My wagon held about eight bags; and after I had sold that many I had made two dollars. I wish I could remember what I did with the two dollars, but I do know that to an eight-year-old boy it was a fortune. I saved that money until just before Christmas and bought my mother a box of pretty smelling powder. Whether she ever used it I'm not sure, but it stood on her dresser for years.
I always said potatoes saved my life ... well not really, but it was close. I was 18 years old and when I found myself on a troopship out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and later in the Indian Ocean going to India in World War II. We had dinner served at 4 p.m. each afternoon, and the next meal didn't come until seven a.m. the next morning. So about 10 p.m. each evening I was starved but there was nothing to fill that 18-year old cavity in my stomach.
I couldn't sleep, so I prowled the ship, even going to places that were off-limits looking for food. One night I stumbled upon the potato bin of the ship. I filled my pockets, stuffed as many as I could into the front of my fatigue jacket, and silently stole back to my lower bunk in the compartment all 400 of us occupied. I was very careful not to let anybody else see me place the spuds in my barracks bag. I shared them with my card playing buddy and he and I would have a spud snack each evening eating raw delicious potatoes. Those spuds sustained us through most of the voyage in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. I had to replenish our supply from time to time and was able to keep our operation secret. My card-playing buddy still beat me at cards but we looked after each other especially when we tried to keep our space on deck. It was much too warm below decks when we neared the equator two times.
Potatoes are still used by many and what would Hardees or McDonalds do with out french fried potatoes or hashbrowns? Fancy restaurants will serve baked potatoes and all kinds of toppings or skins, but put them all together and they are still spuds!