Year of the Spud

The United Nations has designated 2008 as the Year of the Potato. Teach your kids some potato history during your family vacation this year.

The plain-Jane potato kept in your cabinet or root cellar is a superhero in disguise. From the Russet Burbank to the Atahualpa, the Vitelotte to the Papa colorada, the Kipfler to the Yukon Gold—like the peoples of the world, the tater comes in many different sizes, colors and shapes. It’s so amazing, that the United Nations has designated 2008 as the Year of the Potato.

What’s so special about the spud? It’s eaten worldwide, and is the fourth most harvested crop on the globe (about 353 million tons in 2007, according to the U.N. site). All those spuds aren’t just to feed children’s french fry cravings. The potato’s carbohydrates, protein, potassium and vitamin C are all good for us. Compared to any other major crop, it requires less land, produces nutritious food more quickly and has a higher tolerance for climate changes.

As global population grows, more pressure on land and water use requires us to consider agricultural changes that use fewer natural resources. This year, the U.N. is increasing awareness of the importance of the tuber as a food in developing nations (where land is limited and labor is plentiful) for alleviating poverty and promoting research and development of potato-farming systems.

World Traveler

It may come as a shock, but the bland-looking potato (Solanum tuberosum) is an accomplished traveler. From its origins in the Andes mountains (over 8,000 years ago), it traveled with Spanish conquistadores to Europe in the 16th century. The potato spread throughout Europe, and a century later, was taken by sailors on voyages to China, Japan, India and North America. It then found a home throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Australia—before circling back again to South America.

Kids’ potato palates are tuned to fries, tater tots and those of the baked variety (with just plain butter), while adults add a love for gnocchi and perhaps even vodka. With such a variety of dishes, it’s too easy to stay home to toast the tuber. Here are five places you and your family can celebrate the spud in your travels this year:

China. In 2007, the Middle Kingdom was the world’s top potato producer. Sample some shredded potatoes in chili and vinegar—a popular dish in Beijing.

Peru. The birthplace of the tuber has the greatest variety of potatoes in the world. Visit Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu, or Lake Titicaca and peruse the plentiful options on the restaurant menus, beginning with Papas a la Huancaína.

Potato Beach, Portugal. Praia da Batata (Potato Beach) in the Algarve region is named for the spud-shaped rocks offshore. Catch some rays and enjoy some Caldo Verde. Just don’t bake yourself!

Grand Forks, N.D./East Grand Forks, Minn. The Potato Bowl, a weeklong festival ending with a football game, is held September 8-13, 2008. Culinary events include baked potato bars and a french fry feed.

Puerto Rico. The island nation is home to The Hot Potato, a chain of restaurants specializing in baked potatoes. Choose among a variety of 28 different toppings in 12 different locations across Puerto Rico.

Destinations: Peru, Puerto Rico, Portugal, China

Themes: Culinary, Family Travel

Activities: Eat