In Carbondale, spuds are among favorite things
As other events blossom and grown around it, Carbondale’s oldest festival plods steadily along.
Potato Day, a harvest celebration dating back more than 100 years to days when thousands of acres of potatoes lurked beneath the valley floor, may have been eclipsed by Mountain Fair in size and hype, but for many locals it remains the town’s essential event.
Sporting a ‘Sound of Music” theme — “Spuds are a few of my favorite things” – this year’s Potato Day includes a farmer’s market at 9:30 a.m., parade down Main Street at 10:30, music and silent auction at 11:30, and barbecue in the Sopris Park at noon.
The event tends to draw out the old timers and the second-, third-, and even fourth-generation ranchers, although, as Mark Gianinetti observed, “There aren’t very many of those people left.”
“It’s held its own at 1,000 or so people for lunch,” Gianinetti said. “The locals that like it come and some newcomers discover it. I think it’s nice that we can still do something in Carbondale that’s traditional. I doesn’t have to be fancy. It can just be what it is.”
Like many Carbondalians, Gianinetti occasionally donned a potato sack as a child to march in the parade, but he became involved for good in high school. The event is inextricably linked with Roaring Fork High School’s Homecoming, featuring the queen and king and floats from each class in the morning parade.
At Roaring Fork in the mid-1970s, Gianinetti began helping his father, Ernie, prepare the meat for lunch. The recipe is deceptively simple: beef, barbecue sauce, oil, salt and pepper, all wrapped in muslin and burlap and placed in a smoldering pit overnight.
“There’s no magic to it,” Gianinetti said. “You just look at the fire and say, ‘that looks about right.’”
The resulting sandwich goes well with baked potatoes, beans, ice cream, and coffee out of an ancient copper cauldron.
In addition to the parade and lunch, Potato Day originally included yard games, an evening dance and a rodeo. The games went by the wayside by the time a committee of local ranchers took over from the Chamber of Commerce in the ‘70s, and despite a few attempts to restart it, the dance fizzled out by the time a pair of sororities took over in the ‘90s. The Bareback Bonanza persisted until last year, but is absent from this year’s schedule.
Despite some abbreviations, the event continues to persist thanks to locals willing to pick up the torch.
In days gone by, local ranchers supplied the spuds for lunch with a dump truck full for sale on the side. Today, Tony Lissolo is carrying on the tradition on a smaller scale.
Under the tutelage of father in law, Buddy Black, Lissolo has been growing potatoes on his land near Rifle — known as Bow Tie Ranch due to the plethora of Chevys rooted there — for more than a decade. He is aided by a ‘40s-vintage planter and digger he bought from one of the Gerbazes, drawn by a tractor Buddy bought new in 1984.
“The planter gets you in trouble because it’s so easy,” Lissolo observed. “Having a digger is your saving grace.”
He plants the potatoes whole, choosing specimens about the size of a chicken egg.
“The problem with cutting a potato is it makes it susceptible to rot and disease,” he explained. “If it looks good enough to eat, it should be good enough to plant.”
Using that method, he gets a pretty consistent crop of about 10 potatoes per seed planted. As organic as you can get without the sticker, they’re fed on plowed-under Strawberry Clover and Colorado River water.
For Potato Day, he raises a crop of McClure Red potatoes, a tough variety created in Carbondale and kept alive at Colorado State University. Although some of the more common varieties may also have originated in the Roaring Fork Valley, the McClures are popular for their local roots.
“They’re a very dense potato,” Lissolo said. “They keep well.”
For occasional sales to local restaurants, he opts for more pedestrian varieties. The year’s have given him enough experience to teach others, if not quite enough to devote himself to it fully.
“I’d do it for a living if I could,” he said.
This year, the crop went in late due to heavy spring rains, and at least some of the spuds had to come out early to make it to Potato Day, but it’s proving a decent harvest.
“It’s kind of like Christmas,” Lissolo said. “You never know what you’re gonna get ‘until they come out of the ground.’”
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