Eating Local: Potato Day brings back local touch
Potato Day is an authentic old-time harvest festival, a relic from the days when the rugged pioneers who ranched and settled the Roaring Fork Valley by and large produced what they consumed. At one time, Carbondale’s potatoes were more famous than Idaho’s, so they say, in particular the Red McClure.
Last year I was dismayed to find nary a potato at Potato Day, at least not on the tables of the few farmers and artisans who still peddle their wares at the 106-year-old harvest fair. Supermarket spuds were served at the noontime barbecue under the big white tent in Sopris Park.
The good news in 2015? Tony Lissolo brought red McClure potatoes to sell from his Bow Tie Ranch.
Growing potatoes is a tradition in his family. A few years ago, Tony learned of the red McClures at a local Slow Food event. The variety was practically extinct, but he learned about a seed bank Colorado State University keeps stocked with forgotten heirloom and regional crop varieties. From a CSU extension in the San Luis Valley, he obtained red McClure seed potatoes. He went to work preparing the land, first plowing under a hayfield in Silt, then planting strawberry clover as a cover crop to add nutrients to the soil. After three years of growing clover, Tony tells me his five 80-foot-long rows of Red McClures need no fertilizer.
He’d spent the previous day digging up murphies and quickly sold out of 500 pounds of potatoes packaged in 10-pound bags. He also sold 5-pound bags of attractive Viking potatoes with their white flesh and purple-and-pink skin patterned like a pinto. Those he obtained from a University of Montana seed bank.
I traded honey with another vendor for his dried shiitake mushrooms from Oregon. He described how he grows the fungi in alder logs by fitting holes drilled into the log with dried birch plugs infused with the spores. Then they submerge the logs in a water bath until the mushrooms sprout underwater. After that they’re ready to grow in the misty moist Oregon climate. Shiitake mushrooms are a delicacy I’ve used for making vegetarian stock and deepening the flavor of any soup or vegetable dish. OK, technically these shrooms aren’t local, but they were for a day, and I took advantage of the chance to support the grower and treat my tastebuds.
An older couple charmingly attired in suspenders, bonnet and homespun dress set up just across from our honey stand. The Amish Mennonites, as they call themselves, arrived from Hotchkiss as usual with organic pears, apples and tomatoes. Their tomato crop was ravaged this year by thrips, tiny slender insects that spread the dreaded spotted wilt virus from plant to plant. They lost 150 tomato plants in all, at a rate of 5-7 per day at the infestation’s feverish peak. Although not certified, their approach to farming is organic, which limits their arsenal to battle the bugs, which are also known by evocative names like storm flies and thunderblights.
Besides his fresh harvest of wildflower and clover honey, Ed and I sold Italian plums and concord grapes, which passersby sampled from a plate. Their eyes lit up when the deeply sweet taste of those purple grapes hit their memory banks; several said the nostalgic flavor called up ghosts from their childhood.
You can read a very good account of Carbondale’s agricultural heritage and the silver miners who moved downvalley from Aspen (setting off an enduring trend) to trade in their picks for plows, in Paul Andersen’s book “Elk Mountain Odyssey.”
“Like a county fair,” Andersen writes, “Potato Day featured contests for other locally grown produce. Field grasses, baked goods, and needle work were also judged, and there were horse and pony races, sack races and a greased pig chase. When potato fields still bordered the town a contest was held to see who could pick the most potatoes in a certain amount of time.”
It sounds a lot like Mountain Fair today. In an old photograph of Potato Day, the streets swarm with denizens of another time, now lost to memory but once young and alive, dressed in their dark suits, their corsets, high collars, full skirts and fancy hats.
On Colby farm, the grapes, prunes, plums and Delicious apples only now are ripening into their sweet, crisp glory. In the garden I try to keep up with ripe tomatoes, peppers and basil, and leave the turnips, beets and carrots in the ground. This bounty comes as the farmers markets roll up the carpets, take down their tents and turn off the lights behind them. A century ago Potato Day came in October. Perhaps contemporary concerns — off season, Homecoming, cooler weather, the threat of snow, and the impending madness of the winter season — encourage us to rush the harvest season. But on the farm, we’re still eating local.
Marilyn Gleason keeps it local in Peach Valley. Send her your ideas and comments at email@example.com with the subject line “Food.”
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