On the Potato Trail

May 19, 2010

NHPR's week-long look at food, "Eating In", continues now with the next course in our dinner at Josh Roger's house. Josh cooked for the NHPR news team and each day this week, we trace the supply chain of one of the more common ingredients used in that meal. Today, NHPR's Jon Greenberg presents the humble potato.

[salsa music/ salsa with pots clanging]
Josh was under strict guidance to include items that the US Department of Agriculture says are most likely to show up in the typical American shopping cart. Under that rule, potatoes had to be on the menu, but there were no restrictions on the recipe Josh could use. He opted to roast them slowly in the company of one simple, but unusual ingredient.

SFX: Duck fat, duck fat. Duck fat's good

There are many varieties of potato but right now at most supermarkets, the white potato is the most popular.
Where it comes from depends on the time of year. Fall and winter, it's most likely to come from our neighbor to the north, Maine. But in spring, the supply line jumps 3,000 miles west.

CIPRIANO: These right now are coming from Bakersfield California.

Jim Cipriano owns Arrowfoods. He’s a produce middleman. If you buy your potatoes at any supermarket in New Hampshire, the chances are very good that at some point, your potato passed through Cipriano's sorting and packing operation just north of Boston.

CIPRIANO: There you see the potatoes being dumped out, opened up, and they go up a conveyor belt.

In this warehouse, about 50 workers labor in service to the spud. Potatoes arrive by the railroad car and truck load.

Cipriano frets that too few shoppers appreciate the value of a fresh potato, one that gets from the field to the store in about a week.

CIPRIANO: It’s time! This is the time you should be having a BBQ with them, whereas for a lot of people .. I mean I have the passion for it, but a lot of people say , a potato is a potato but you can tell from my demeanor that I don’t feel that way.

Cipriano says he can taste the distinctive touch of California soil in the white potatoes that come from Bakersfield.

But one of several potato growers there is Kirschenman Enterprises. Mike Haddad is a salesman and this is no small operation.

HADDAD: What we do as far as white potatoes – you’re looking at 8, uh, four, approximately 1200 acres of white potatoes.

For a grand total in a season …

HADDAD: I would say 5 million pounds.

The goal for growers is to sell each harvested batch as soon as possible.

HADDAD: When it’s produced in our shed, put in cold storage, it’s usually shipped day of and it’s kept at about 42 to 48 degrees.

When everything works, those potatoes will make the entire trip, coast to coast, at that temperature.

It might sound energy intensive but in reality, there are so many tons of potatoes, the carbon footprint per pound is very low. The main concern around the big potato growers is the use of pesticides.

SFX: I like a little pepper on my potatoes

The main concern around Josh’s dinner table might have been our arteries, but it wasn’t.

SFX: These potatoes were made with duck fat/It’s possible to have healthy potatoes but Josh made sure that we didn’t//You should always have a bit of duck fat/How many times have I said that today.

For NHPR News, I’m Jon Greenberg . Bon apetit.