Even though I am retired, September has been a busy month at the Penn State Horticulture Research Farm in Rock Springs. I have been harvesting specialty/colored potatoes to help Ben Nason, a graduate of our department, with his effort to start a company dedicated to developing colored potato chips associated with sports teams.
I have always likened digging potatoes to anticipating a birthday gift or drilling for oil — you never know what you have until the potatoes are lifted out of the ground and you can see the actual yield and quality of the spuds.
I got hooked on specialty potatoes when I arrived at Penn State in 1997 and was working on commercial potato production practices and doing potato variety trials. Specialty potatoes are potatoes with different shapes or sizes and/or skin and flesh colors. In the Andes Mountains in Peru, where the potato originated, you can observe in the marketplace many different shapes and skin and flesh colors of potatoes.
As a gardener, you are most familiar with white skin/white flesh or red skin/white flesh varieties of potatoes such as Superior, Katahdin, Kennebec, Viking or Dark Red Norland. The variety Yukon Gold (yellow skin with pink eyes and yellow flesh) comes to mind as the first specialty potato to really catch on in the marketplace. Ever since the mid-1990s at the Penn State Horticulture Research Farm, we have been growing potatoes with many different skin and flesh color combinations such as blue/blue, red/red, red/white, white/yellow, purple/yellow, purple/white and the traditional white/white and even red skinned and white fleshed potatoes that only make B size (small) potatoes that you can just put in the pot or steamer.
The potato breeders across the country have taken the development of specialty potato varieties seriously and have developed some very colorful potatoes that have caught on in the marketplace. I have worked with Pete Bordi and Anne Quinn Corr from Penn State on the colored potatoes and we have made potato chips, baked potatoes, potato salad and french fries. My favorite was blue french fries with green ketchup. I remember vividly when Roger Swain, who was at that time the host of the Victory Garden Show on PBS, came to visit and we were looked at the colored potatoes in the trial at the Horticulture Research Farm. He was so excited and was talking a mile a minute about how he loved the colored potatoes.
One idea that we had discussed and even tested was that these potatoes would make great colored chips for sale at fundraising (such as Penn State’s Thon) and athletic events for schools — from grade schools to university and colleges. People could show pride in their school by purchasing potato chips in the school colors for tailgating and parties. If you take for example, Penn State or Lebanon Valley College, where I obtained my undergraduate degree, then you have blue and white colored chips. If you are a Wisconsin or Cornell (where I obtained my graduate degrees) fan, then you could purchase red and white chips. If a Naval Academy (my branch of the service), Notre Dame or Michigan fan, then you purchase blue and gold chips.
In conversations with Nason when he was a student, he thought the idea was neat and he caught the vision and has pursued the idea of marketing colored potato chips under the “Tailgater Taters” label. He is a real entrepreneur and is determined to have blue and white potato chips available for your tailgate or party. I will certainly keep you posted on his progress and where you can get your blue and white potato chips so you can tailgate in style, and more on the varieties of colored of potatoes that you might grow in your own gardens and make your blue and white potato salad.
Bill Lamont is professor emeritus of vegetable crops in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.