An order of fries with your culture

It's Bud the Spud, from the bright red mud, goin' down the highway smiling. Actually it's not. Bud was from P.E.I., while Potato World's spokes-spud is from New Brunswick. But both bring a welcome, earthy reality to SimCity or whatever virtual community you inhabit. Potato World, in case you missed the story, is a giant $1.5-million museum and science and technology centre just outside Florenceville, New Brunswick. Its executive director calls it "the Disney World" of spuds: a claim easy to ridicule if you're one of them urban sophisticates who think a real museum should contain unmade beds and pickled sharks rather than a Potato World Hall of Recognition it hopes will draw in some of the tourists already visiting Hartland's famous covered bridge nearby.

The executive director of Potatoes New Brunswick, a growers' association, says "I've been to potato museums all over North America, but this one is by far the best. The one in Blackfoot, Idaho, has always been considered the big deal, but this one is really something." Pride in surpassing the previous Yukon Gold standard could make some folks think Dukes of Hazzard. Not me.

I haven't visited Potato World. But evidently it's not cheesy; it eschewed the enormous potato out front as old tractor cap; why, they even have one of those at the P.E.I. Potato Museum down O'Leary way. And it's not your grandfather's potato technology centre. "Prepare to be surprised," an animated potato says as you enter. Whaddaya mean, prepare?

Potatoes are fascinating. They provide balanced nutrition (just add fresh milk) on a tiny amount of land. But they can't be stored like grain because they're too moist and will sprout on you, or rot, within months, so they did not support the basic deal of early Old World civilization: military protection in return for a share of the harvest. No bandit dreams of whacking the peasant, then digging up a field of potatoes by hand; might as well get an honest job. Except in the South American antiplano where cold night air essentially freeze-dried them, sustaining first the Inca Empire, then Spain's rapacious mining.

On the other hand, once it crossed the ocean, the potato changed European demography, including the potato famine and resulting Irish diaspora. Then it came back to the New World, including Canada, with dramatic results. (And while I'm digging up my notes here, if you ever get a partly green potato chip, don't panic, companies try to weed them out as consumers disrelish them, but in fact they're harmless; occasionally a potato sticks out of the ground and sunlight activates the chlorophyll. Mind you, if it's green and furry, your potato chip has gone mouldy.)

In case, like some modern Gollum, you're still asking "What's Tater World, precious?" let me add, based on careful research (reading a Citizen story), that Potato World has historical exhibits from 19th-century horse-team farming to modern potato processing, displays of tools ancient and modern, and interactive history lessons with talking potatoes Trevor and Pirouette. "How many museums have talking potatoes?" asks founder Bill Black. Indeed.

I regret that both the New Brunswick and federal governments (the latter via ACOA) chipped in half a mil, with the rest raised privately. But the whole thing grew from a grassroots desire to save old farm equipment rusting in fields in New Brunswick's potato belt. (No, that's just an expression, not an article for sale in the gift shop, though they have one filled with spudstuffs, plus a cafe that sells potato bread, biscuits, candy and fudge. Better yet, kids who think food comes from a computer can visit a live potato field out back, pick out their own and watch the cafe make it into french fries.)

This is real Canadian culture, like Stompin' Tom and quite unlike John Ralston Spud. It shows how Canadians lived before grief counselling, the Charter or modern art, even before St. Tommy and St. Pierre gave us the Canada Health Act. It's also contemporary Canadian culture: imaginative, high-tech, irreverent and fun. Plus Florenceville is the home of McCain Foods Ltd., the largest producer of french fries on the planet.

Our politicians are always saying they're going to make us the greatest this or the biggest that in the world or claiming the UN already said we were (was that before or after putting Sudan back on its Human Rights Commission?). But here we are, genuine world-beaters at one of the world's great foods and you can hear the cognoscenti sneering all the way from Queen Street. Not me.

"I like reality," said French screenwriter Jean Anouilh. "It tastes of bread." Yeah, and potatoes. Plus I'd rather enjoy strolling into some Toronto salon in dirt-covered overalls and bursting out with "The spuds are big, on the back of Bud's rig ..."

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson