THE BLOG
11/25/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Is It Food, Or Is It Foodiness? Let's Ask the Good Citizens of Idaho!

Down here in the Foodiness fallout shelter, we're very busy getting ready for the great American holiday devoted to overeating. We've got our turkey all picked out from the wild flock that just "wanders" onto the property right around this time every year, the cranberries have been harvested from the bog that camouflages the entrance to the fallout shelter, the pumpkins are picked and the film removed from inside of them. And, because the fallout shelter is underground, we can harvest the all the potatoes we need, right from the comfort of our e-z chairs! Just reach out and pluck one!

Over the last couple of years, on all the many and varied episodes of Let's Get Real, the radio show we broadcast from down here, we've discussed many different foods, and their Foodiness doppelgangers. But the humble, simple potato... somehow slipped right past us.

We were so busy talking and ranting and propagandizing for real food that we totally overlooked the simple potato. It got right by us, like a stealthy defector from North Korea, silently slipping the border into China at midnight, or more like the quiet, shy girl in your college modernism survey class whom everyone ignored because she seemed so uninterested in showing off how creative and unique she was... unlike certain other people who filled that pretentious classroom, and then a decade later you read that she's selling her paintings for six and seven figures and is profiled in the New Yorker and is buying a $14 million dollar townhouse in the Village, across from your 80-something-year-old friend Ida's rent-controlled studio apartment. Yeah, more like that. Sort of.

So potatoes, what about 'em? Well, since it's Thanksgiving, and we're stuck down here in the Fallout Shelter together, I'll tell you a story. You know I love to regale you with my personal stories, often, and often repeatedly. Like someone's aging grandpa. It's not really my story, it was told to me by my bff Lisa. So Lisa and her husband Andy were moving from Durham North Carolina to Portland Oregon about five years ago. They had hired movers to take their stuff across, and then they drove across in their car, with their dogs. Now, as good as food across America is getting, and it's getting much better in many, many places, when you're driving the interstate and don't want to lose hours by veering off-course to smaller cities or bigger towns to find that cool new locavore place you read about online, but you just want a meal on the road... you have to eat at the chains. There's always a selection of them on the highway, and we've all been there. Fact of American Life. And, in their credit, they are getting better, too.

So Lisa and Andy are in Idaho, just one state away from their destination, and they're tired, and tired of eating on the road. And as the endless miles of Idaho potato fields pass by, they spot a "sit-down" kind of family restaurant chain, so they go in. And by this time, Lisa's really desperate for something relatively healthy, so she order the "fish." That's what it's called, the "fish." Not like trout or bass, or mackerel or Arctic char, like fish with a species name and a specific genetic code, nope, just fish. Mistake number one.

Well, maybe not, it's probably just some frozen fillet of some white fish, probably scrod or something farmed, whatever. Better than the chicken-fried pork chop or red-velvet waffles or whatever else is on a the menu. And when Lisa is asked what she'd like with it, French fries, onion rings, fried dough bits, tots... whatever the options were, she says "How about a baked potato?" glancing out over the potato fields that literally grew right up to the parking lot edge.

Mistake number two. "Uh... lemme check on that," says the waitress and trots off. She returns with the bad news. "Sorry hon, no more baked potatoes today. How 'bout some curly fries or waffle fries or steak fries or mashed potatoes or hash browns or home fries or potato chips? Or a side of mixed frozen vegetables?" I'm not sure she actually offered all those things, I just use them to point out the irony. So Lisa points out the window and says "But we're in Idaho, what else DO you have?" "Uhhh yeah hon, but no baked potatoes today." Now had it been me in that situation, I'd have said, "Well, I'll just go out and dig one up right now, and you can stick it in the giant microwave back there that passes for your kitchen, and in 5 to 10 minutes I'll have a baked potato, okay?"

I'm not sure what Lisa did, probably just dejectedly ate the frozen mixed vegetables and fish and got back in the car, exhausted and tired of driving with her two crazy dogs and crossed the state line into the food promised land, aka Oregon, or at least the Portlandia region of Oregon where they now live in food heaven.

So do you see the Foodiness-soaked irony of that story? The Idaho chain restaurant kitchen had no baked potatoes. While the surrounding potato vines and roots were probably pushing right up through their very floor, and choking the plumbing of their walk-in fridge below that restaurant. Because the industrialized, mechanized, corporate-food-chain style of eating and sourcing and procuring probably meant that those potatoes that grew right outside the door were harvested, processed and packed right nearby, but then shipped thousands of miles off to other centralized facilities where they'd be processed some more, turned into all sorts of potato-Foodiness industrial complex products, repackaged, frozen and shipped back out all over the country, and when the 19-year-old who ran the kitchen there in Idaho ordered all his potato products for the week, they'd ship them right back to him, including a sack of whole potatoes to bake, for the carefully calibrated number of baked potatoes they'd estimated at corporate HQ to sell at that particular outlet. The one RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of the potato fields! You can have all the processed, frozen potato products you want at that family friendly sit-down in Potatolandia, but no potato.

Water water everywhere, but not an unflavored, uncolored, or unsweetened drop to drink.

Sure, potatoes are super versatile, you can make a million different things with them, all delicious and filling and comforting. Who doesn't love potatoes? I love potatoes, too. I don't eat them much anymore, because I finally figured out, after all those stupid decades of fat-phobia, that it was the starchy carbs and sugars that were messing with my health, not the fat. But I still eat a few fries with a burger now and then. I've got nothing against the potato, per se... but I do have a problem with potato Foodiness, in case you hadn't caught on to that yet. A whole, simple, russet or Idaho potato aka, the starchy potatoes, or the "waxy" kind, like red bliss and Yukon gold, actually are a lot more nutritious than you'd think. They have vitamin C, some protein, and if you eat the skin, a big dose of fiber. And yes, potatoes are one of our most heavily sprayed and chemically dosed crops, so organic is always better, especially with root crops which just suck up all those pesticides and have thin skins, but if you're not eating potatoes for three meals a day, you can limit your pesticide intake a little.

We ate a lot of baked potatoes in my house growing up in the 70s and 80s. I think everyone did back then, it was one of those things you ate. In my fat-phobe years I'd eat a big baked potato and a pile of steamed broccoli for dinner, no butter of course, but often ketchup on the potato. Great idea, put two tablespoons of corn syrup on a big blob of carbs, but what did I know? I'd swallowed the propaganda...

I'd really kind of forgotten about the simple baked potato in recent years. I don't eat out much, and especially not at steakhouses or places that might still serve them. When I lived in London one summer during college, and was a clueless, misguided fat-phobic vegetarian, there was a baked-potato chain which I'd sometimes go to for lunch. They called then "jacket" potatoes, which is kind of charming in that quaint English way but also kind of stupid in that same way, and I ate there and got fatter and more depressed as the summer wore on, but not totally because of the potatoes. Mostly because my life was a mess and I was living on potatoes and chocolate bars and hard cider. But that's another story.

This summer, up at my tiny bungalow one weekend, there was a little cold spell and we were grocery shopping and I suddenly thought, BAKED POTATOES. I had made chili from some ground bison and it was a cool night and yes, baked potatoes! How had I forgotten all about them? So we added them back into our dinner repertoire, with plenty of real butter this time around. Welcome back to the family, little baked potato!

I had always thought that making baked potatoes was pretty intrinsic to everyone's culinary knowledge, like what else could be easier? But back when I was teaching at a big culinary school, we had twice-baked potatoes in one of the lessons. You know, where you bake a potato, then slice it lengthwise, scoop out the flesh, puree it with cream, butter, cheese, etc. then pipe or spoon it back into the shell, and bake it again until the top is crunchy and brown? When I ate my first twice-baked potato as a child, I thought that the person who'd invented them was some kind of an Einstein-level of genius. I couldn't believe someone had thought of doing that. Blew my little carb-crazed mind. When I'd teach the twice-baked lesson, and I'd say ""Okay guys, so get your potatoes in to bake asap, so we can get them done in time", the students would turn their device-dulled eyes to me with blank stares, unable to decipher what I'd just asked them to do. They didn't know how to bake a potato. Something I'd learned to do at seven years old.

"Okay then," I'd say. "You just stick a potato in the oven, and bake it 'til it's soft, oui?" "Uhh... no chef, never did it before. Can't we just drop them in the fryer? That's how you cook potatoes, right?" "Umm... sure, oh, wait, I think the recruiter from that national chain restaurant is here today for the job fair, why don't you just go down and see her right now, okay? We'll keep going with today's lesson, don't worry, I'll (eat) save your twice-baked for you"

But yet again, Foodiness creeps in, like the twisting curling vines and roots of a million Idaho curly fry potato plants... creeping in and taking something simple and pure and perfectly good as food itself, and turning it into all kinds of brilliantly evil Foodiness. And I'm not just talking about your basic potato chip, or frozen French fry, all fairly innocuous. I've got nothing against a good chip or fry, or real mashed potato. I've got a REALLY big problem, like an IDAHO sized problem with things like stackable "potato" chips in a can, and poofed chips and booty and puffed snacks that are made from dehydrated potato powder, then slurried and jet-blasted and formed into a million different puffy, crunchy snackified products.

All far, far removed from their original form, and stripped of any actual food value that they had to begin with. It's like wheat, in a whole, unprocessed, unrefined, unenriched, unhybridized, un-gmo'd form, is a powerfully nutritious staple food for billions of people. Turn it into processed white flour, process it even further into pink, puffy, marshmallowy, mouthless-Japanese-cartoon-kitty shaped cereal, and something gets a little... lost in the process. Same with potatoes. Bake 'em whole? Food. Slice thin and fry in oil? Food. Boil and mash with a pound of butter? Food. Cut into sticks and fry twice in horse fat? (the traditional fat for frying French fries in, horse fat, yes it's true, I'm not kidding) definitely FOOD. Process into starch powder then rehydrate and form into stackable perfectly uniform chip shapes, dust with artificial onion flavor and industrial whey powder and stack in a can? Form into ring-shaped fried loops and curls and dinosaurs? Foodiness. Or maybe just crap. Yeah, just crap.

The Irish were doomed by their potato famine, not just because they didn't have any more potatoes, but because they were relying on a monoculture, among other reasons. They stopped growing other stuff for themselves and just grew potatoes. Although you can survive on potatoes for a long time -- they have enough protein and vitamin C to keep you alive. Think you can survive on stackable chips? We have a different kind of famine now, the kind of obese, diabetic famine we now see all over the U.S. Overfed, starving people, living on Foodiness facsimiles of food. I'd love to do a survival study on that, a potato famine study. See who drops first, the stacking chip eater or the potato eater. Welcome to the new, 21st-century potato famine. You want fries with that?

And oh yeah, mashed potatoes. This week is Thanksgiving, so... I guess we should talk about them. We NEVER ate mashed potatoes in my house growing up, any time of the year, because they reminded my mom too much of subsisting on watery potato soup during the war, and she couldn't eat them. So we never got them but I'd sure scarf them down at friend's houses when I had my chance. As far as I knew, the moms used real potatoes, but how would I know? I had no frame of reference.

So this year, on Thanksgiving, eat real. Make real mashed potatoes. It's easy. Just bake or boil the potatoes, and mash them or use a potato ricer, but never a machine with a blade or you'll get potato glue, and then add milk or cream, butter and salt. Perfect and delicious. Or make twice-baked and blow your guest's minds. And think of me, I'll be down here, in the Fallout Shelter, happily enjoying the quiet holiday, thinking about food mostly, and Foodiness, minimally. Happy Thanksgiving.