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Display Whips Up Interest in Tuber : Washington's 'Potato Museum': Couple's Idea Is Not Half-Baked

November 16, 1986|JOHN BARBOUR | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution preserves more than 100 million items in its vast collection, from dinosaur bones to Dolley Madison's slippers, but not a single potato.

However, that glaring omission is taken care of a dozen blocks away. Just visit the home of Tom and Meredith Hughes, a young couple with a towheaded 3-year-old named Gulliver. The little card on the front door of their brownstone announced that this is "The Potato Museum."

Inside, from living room to dining room to kitchen, the ubiquitous tuber is king.

There are thousands of museums throughout America, most of them in small towns, that honor some interest or enthusiasm, some kind of nostalgia. But the potato?

Mr. Potato Head

Here in the Hughes household is the original Mr. Potato Head, the first toy, they say, advertised on television; a clock that runs on electrical power generated by two potatoes; a couple of potato-sack sports jackets; all kinds of potato picking gear; a patented device for printing Idaho on potatoes; pottery from Peru designed after potatoes, including one that whistles through a little ceramic bird when you blow on it, items dating from 1,000 years before Christ.

Tom Hughes, a lean, pleasant Welsh-Irish American, said the potato came from the Incas of ancient Peru and was carried to the rest of the civilized world by the Spanish conquistadors.

In the same high valleys where the coca leaf grows, the potato grew, probably a refugee from the jungle below. The potato offered nutrition, the coca leaf a numbness from the pain of daily living in the rugged mountain valleys of Peru.

Coca Leaves Used

"As a matter of fact, cocaine plays a part in the planting ritual for potatoes to this day," Hughes said. Coca leaves are placed in the ground with the seed potatoes and they are sprinkled with corn beer.

Hughes got a fellowship to go to Peru last May to study the potato's origins firsthand.

He got interested in the subject while he was teaching at an international school in Brussels. He saw so many museums devoted to the artifacts of war, and nothing to the origins of food, that he decided then and there to champion the potato, Solanum tuberosum .

'More Valuable'

Why not Brussels sprouts? "Potatoes are a lot more valuable."

Did he come from Idaho? No. Maine? No. Long Island? No. Philadelphia.

Potatoes come in three colors, red, white and blue.

Hughes is discouraged that "more artists don't use potatoes in their still lifes. They don't understand that they can be quite colorful."

Van Gogh, he said, did some still life paintings of the potato and his famous "The Potato Eaters" was his favorite.

No Favorite Recipe

The Hughes family hosts friends in a Potato Eaters Night once a week. Everyone must bring a potato dish, everything from appetizers to dessert. Tom has no favorite recipe. He likes them all.

He teaches ancient history, mathematics and English to fifth-graders at The Potomac School, which makes it difficult to keep the museum open. Visitors must call to make an appointment.

On this particular day, two visitors are young men, Vince Brotsky of Washington and Mark Saroyan of Berkeley, Calif., both students. Saroyan is a cousin of the late writer, but never met his famous kin. Tom questions him closely on Armenian recipes that use potatoes. Mark said the Armenian word for potato means literally "ground apple" and promises to keep an eye open for anything new about the potato.

Dipped in Champagne

Hughes reminds you that Marilyn Monroe dipped potato chips in champagne in the movie, "The Seven-Year Itch."

Incan soldiers carried freeze-dried potatoes (it gets cold in those mountains) as a lightweight foodstuff that could be boiled or added to stews.

There are anthologies of poems about potatoes. Cole Porter wrote, "You say potatoes and I say potahtoes. . . . " Eddie Cantor sang, "Potatoes are cheaper. . . . Now's the time to fall in love."

A Colorado grower wrote a 120-page epic in rhyme to the potato and its origins.

Potato Whiskey

The Norwegians, like others, used the potato to make whiskey. But they believed that it was not ready for drinking until it had made a round trip by ship to Australia. The labels state when the whiskey embarked on its voyage, the name of the ship and the date it returned to Norway.

The chef at Antoine's in New Orleans cooks up little baskets of woven potato peels to serve his famous potato souffles. Tom has one in the museum, of course, one of 2,000 items and 400 exhibits that his wife said "blight" the rooms.

In spite of that, she shares his enthusiasm for the tuber, edits the newsletter, Peelings, which goes out to members in 35 states and several foreign countries.

Among the exhibits are color pictures using an autochrome process, which relied on dyed potato crystals. They predated color film by about 30 years and the National Geographic used the autochrome process for 10 years.

'Misunderstood' Food

Despite his study of the 10,000 varieties of potato, Tom Hughes said, "The potato is taken too much for granted. It really is misunderstood and mistreated."

Most restaurants do not prepare it correctly, he said, and most of the fresh potatoes on the market are being replaced by processed tubers.

"I've been thinking and studying this subject for 11 years and there's so much more to learn," he said. "That's what's exciting. It's not finite."

He dreams of seeing the potatoes grown in monasteries by Tibetan monks, or potatoes grown from true seed and not seed potatoes in China, and tracing how Capt. James Cook brought the potatoes to the Maoris--maybe even doing a potato documentary, "The Many Splendid Journeys of the Potato."

At the very least, he said, he would like to see Washington with a sobriquet like New York's "Big Apple." He nominates "The Hot Potato."

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