We Say Potato

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It’s the entire spectrum of cooking, of eating, of life itself can be represented by the potato.

Jim Leff

Steamin’ Spud[Roboppy / Flickr]

The last time our good friend Jim Leff, the chowhound, was on Open Source you had only the first course. Leff served up the second course, when we were off the air, and he started talking potatoes. We are bringing him back so you can be in on this great conversation.

Leff is a guy who was cooking potato chips at the age of ten. With a couple of decades and over 200 varieties of potato chips under his belt he now gets his fix Fed-Exed from Maui. In an email to Open Source Leff elaborated on these tropical wonders

Snack food, phooey…these things are STEAKS! So huge and thickly cut, you’d think them comical if you weren’t moaning in ecstasy. Massive roasty potato flavor, deep dark brown, snatched from the oil just in time by an omniscient hand. Paul Bunyon eats ’em. Greasy as all get-out. Every other chip seems anemic.

Jim Leff

But potato chips are just the beginning. As the nation’s preeminent spud stud, Leff loves the potato in any form. From the humble boiled Irish potato, to golden loaves of potato nik, somoas stuffed with ginger spiced spuds, to the sturdy pudding kugel

Like all soul foods, this is a dish born of poverty. But creativity flourishes under impediment, so destitution frequently leads to deliciousness — and there are few things in this world as delicious as a well-baked kugel. It’s a delicacy anyone even remotely fond of potatoes must adore.

I’m nuts about it. Though starchy, inelegant kugel is the trashy underside of Jewish cooking, it’s long been one of the things I most crave. Of course, this might not have been the case had I been born a century ago over there, where potato-centricism stemmed from necessity rather than choice. There’s an old song that goes “Monday, potatoes; Tuesday, potatoes. Wednesday and Thursday, potatoes. Saturday… maybe a potato kugel, then Sunday potatoes again.” It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that this was a blues sung from poverty, not a hopeful song for a future utopia.

Jim Leff, Cuckoo for Kugel

It is the apple of the earth and the apple of Leff’s eye. Skins or nude, mashed or fried, Leff has rarely seen a potato he doesn’t like. If you too have Leff’s lifelong love of the potato we want to know about it. What variety do you like? How do you like them done? What is your potato passion–your french fry wishes and tater-tot dreams?

Jim Leff

Jim Leff didn’t know it at the time but he actually wrote one of the first food blogs What Jim Had for Dinner. This is now part of his popular website, known as the annti-Zagat, www.Chowhound.com. Leff is a food critic who has eaten everything from every corner of the world.

Michael Pollan

Author, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, among others

Professor, UC Berkeley School of Journalism

Susan Tolman

Public Relations Executive for The British Potato Council

Extra Credit Reading

The Potato Museum

Roy Finamore One Potato, Two Potato: 300 Recipes from Simple to Elegant, Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Redcliffe Salaman, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, Cambridge University Press, 1949.

Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, Random House, 2002.

Lisa Tanner, The Potato Experience: Wonderful Ways With Potato Outers and Innards, Ten Speed Press, 1986.

Larry Zuckerman, The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, North Point Press, October 1999.

Dymphna, Father’s Day 2006, The Neighborhood of God, June 19, 2006.

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  • MichaelB67

    Glad to hear you’re getting the big dog (Jim Leff) back on the show. You might also consult John Thorne, whose essay “Potatoes and Point” is a brilliant exploration (with recipes!) of Ireland’s relationship with the spud. Actually, John Thorne would improve ANY discussion about food, but on potatoes he’s essential. Check him out at http://www.outlawcook.com

  • Mine would certainly not be my grandmother’s mashed potatoes. Whenever anyone mentions potatoes I must tell them about my Grandma Harriet’s awful potatoes. Forget adding fabulous things like sour cream, real butter or any such lovely. When Grandma cooks, you get potatoes mashed with water. Dull, grey, lifeless and mouth-bewildering bland. Not even as good as those anemic gritty TV dinner mashed potatoes. The gravy is not much better. A travesty all around.

    The best potatoes I ever did consume were from this odd little diner on the Isle d’Orleans outside of Quebec City. The spud was present in two forms. My dinner of Island Meat Pie was accompanied by the creamiest most angelic mashed potatoes. I think they were made with heavy cream and opiates.

    The second form was the Canadian anomoly of Poutine. We had heard of it, and upon our visit we were all but require to partake. It was quite nearly the culinary highlight of the trip, which is saying a great deal, as Quebec City has many fine restaurants. It came in a bowl; french fries first, then some white cheese curds, and then topped with brown gravy. I was in ecstacy.

    You can see the Poutine here, and in the lower right of the photo, those fabulous mashed spuds. On the right are some vinegar packets, which we assumed later is to be sprinkled atop this delight.


  • MC Slim JB

    Leff’s Chowhound and its community of amateur restaurant reviewers has introduced me to more great food in this country, especially Greater Boston. I owe him huge thanks!

    Some of my favorite local potato dishes:

    * The cauliflower, leek, potato, and Asiago gratin at Metropolis Cafe in Boston’s South End. Basically the best scalloped potatoes I’ve ever had, the perfect side to their wonderful veal scallopine.

    * Good French-style frites, as done at many local places (Caffe Umbra and Aquitaine in the South End, the Beacon Hill Bistro, the Back Bay’s Brasserie Jo), but particularly the version at Sel de la Terre on Boston’s Waterfront, which are dusted with fresh rosemary. Wow!

    * The papas arrugadas at my favorite local Spanish restaurant, Brookline’s Taberna de Haro. They’re a racion (big plate) of Canary Island style new potatoes cooked in an oily sauce loaded with fiery smoked paprika. Great hosts here, too, who comp regulars with another classic Spanish tapa, patatas ali oli, an ultra-garlicky cold potato salad.

    * Hash browns, though great ones are hard to find in Boston. My favorite version is the potato pancakes at Cafe Polonia, a fine little Polish restaurant in South Boston. Theirs are oversized, skillfully and greaselessly fried, crunchy on the outside, steaming and creamy inside, great with sour cream and applesauce.

    * The aligot occasionally served as a side dish at Sage, a tiny, creative Italian place in Boston’s North End. That’s a potato-and-Cantal-cheese puree served in a tall cylinder of deep-fried super-thin potato shreds, probably cut lengthwise from big spuds. One stunning presentation, and incredibly tasty, kind of like a savory ice cream cone.

  • bft
  • Potter

    Oy! I got a stomach ache just listening to the chowhound extolling the virtues of potato kugel and latkes loaded with grease..Please!….

    Give me our local organically grown Yukon Golds or Kennebecs ( from Applefield Farms Stowe MA), steamed and sea salted with butter or olive oil.

  • Yark

    FORGET ‘Sweet Potatoes’ dry stringy blah – – – but YAMS !! Yams is the Universe !! Cast Iron Pan, Olive Oil, sliced 1/4 inch + thick, Medium Heat – – NOT TOO HOT, they’ll carmelize and then burn if too hot – – Mmmmmmm

    And fast – – takes no longer than fried potato of any kind: and Breakfast !! mmmmmmm

  • AliceT

    Cheryl Wheeler, folk singer, has written a song called “Potato”. It is sung to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance. It is funny and fantastic.

    Her web site URL is

    The Potato Song keeps the whole word potato without ending on the first or second syllable.

  • lara

    I tried this as a response to a pregnancy craving- McDonald’s french fries with wasabi. Delicious. Silly but true.

  • diogenes

    Love potatoes – but Jim Leff is so snarky and judgemental as to take the joy of tonight’s show. He should stick to potatoes and stop taking shots at folks. The fellow on the phone was great though – decent chap. Diogenes

  • jdkatzvt

    When chosing a caterer for our wedding, my wife and I sampled garlic mashed potatoes at several restaurants. At the wedding feast there were toasts to the garlic mashed. Potatoes and garlic in combination might only be improved with wild mushrooms, and fresh black pepper.

  • ChinoWayne

    “Bleenies”, I wish you had not sent that link to the bleenie definition above, I was having more fun visualing a potato pancakes, hot dogs and caviar concoction.

  • mlowry

    I heard from a dermatologist that I trust that almost everyone’s immune system is able to destroy warts, but sometimes you need help to think you can. This dermatologist said he’s usually able to convince children up to 8 or so that “magic” fo some sort will fix their warts (“this is my magic penny that will make the warts go away if it touches them . . . .” or “one touch of this magic pencil . . . .” and so on). Chris, it wasn’t the potato but the power of suggestion and your own immune system. Any ritual would’ve done it.

  • joel

    There is probably no tuber, or food of any sort, that is less vulnerable to

    freezing when every cell wall of a potato ruptures and the thing turns into a

    floppy, potato-skin-bag of slush. Yet, in this country, they seem to be grown as

    produce (not as seed potatoes) in the parts of the country that may have some of

    the earliest and freezingest frosts on either side of the Big Muddy – Maine in the

    east and Idaho in the west. WHY?

    Someone mentioned the Inkas or Aztecs or somesuch. Those people, living at 18000

    feet in the Andes had early frosts and freezing nights that scare brass monkeys to

    death, yet grew many varieties of spuds in the rocky two inch think soil(?) up

    there, as was mentioned. But not to worry. They invented FREEZE-DRYING eons ago.

    The morning after the potatoes freeze, they spread them in the warm sun the next

    morning on the eastern exposure of whatever mountain they lived on where the rock

    might warm up enough to help the potatoes thaw. Then they would pop the skins of

    those thawed potatoes and squash them by walking on them. They would mash them up

    so the juice would get mixed into the pulp instead of just running off so the

    nutrition in the juice is not lost. And then they let the juice evaporate into that

    rarified atmosphere, stirring the mash occassionally, I’m sure, to warm and expose

    all parts as well as possible for the most rapid evaporation and drying. When dried

    enough, they will easily last till next year’s harvest. And be very light to pack

    on a trip.

    Your gourmets will have to tell you how to make the bleenies and patty cakes and

    whatall to tickle your tongues for a year.


  • kasia

    Here’s a summer time supper I grew up eating. My mother would boil new potatoes and serve them (hot) in a bowl with cold buttermilk poured over them.

    The best homefries I ever had were at a Greek restaurant in the University district in Seattle. They were seasoned with oregano.

  • chuckroast7

    As a poet, I find potatoes growing in my poem all the time, and for some reason they are almost aways connected with New York City. he subway knish is an amazing experience. Here are a couple of examples (c) Charles Ramie.

    Joan, Holding a Sweet Potato

    Joan, holding half a steaming sweet potato,

    end-up in the napkin, saw me watching her.

    She smiled. There I go, eating my paperweight

    again. Usually I keep one on my desk, raw

    to hold things down. Eating a sweet potato,

    I always feel happy. It reminds me of my father.

    When I was a little girl we used to walk

    through the Lower East Side. He held my hand

    It was winter, and we would walk together

    eating hot sweet potatoes. No matter how cold

    it was, I felt warm, holding the hot potato

    in my hand, and walking with my father.

    Feel how warm it is? It reminds me of

    my father. It feels good, and warm, and safe.

    Uncertain of the Next Stop

    We rode the D train

    out over the water at night

    pressed close to the glass,

    the Brooklyn Bridge

    the lights go out,

    rails crackling with sparks

    beguiled with this city.

    Your blonde hair

    draped across my arm,

    the shining span of the bridge,

    the bridge.

    I found myself, later

    walking down Broadway

    alone, eating a subway knish,

    crumpled the wrapper,

    the napkin,

    toss them in the trash,

    uncertain of the next stop.

  • plj

    a couple of things from a potato lover:

    On “naked” baked potatoes — in the days before its facelift, there was a small hole in the wall in Penn Station NY which served huge Idaho baked potatoes (really baked, not steamed) with your choice of sauce, chili, chicken ala king, broccoli and chesse (with real cheese and real broccoli). There was no better lunch on acold winter day. I’ve thought that if I ever opened a restaurant, it would be like this.

    If you want to try something off the beaten path, look for Peruvian Papa Seca, naturally freeze dried potatoes. It is prepared with charki (dried beef) in a stew, that is a concentrated dose of potato heaven.

  • Sue E. Generous

    The fresh potato pierogi from the Polish deli on First Avenue in the East Village is a one of life’s great, simple pleasures. The kluski are equally wonderful. I’m a mono meal gal and I’ve found that potatoes make the ultimate mono meal: latkes, kugel, french fries, whipped, baked. What else do you need? It’s the ultimate comfort food and it’s CHEAP!

    Jim — I couldn’t agree more about the green peppers. My mother makes the best homefries. If you’re ever on Miami Beach, I’m sure she’d be happy to whip some up for you.

  • cerebrocrat

    The next time Chris has Jim Leff on the show, I’d love to hear him probe Leff a little about his class issues. Every time I’ve heard this guy interviewed, he’s taking shots at some outgroup. I never knew “Foodies” were something bad until Leff told me so, and today on the show I learned that people who don’t like cookies are liars, and people who do like Merlot are snobs.

    I remember Julia Child saying something to the effect of loving her life in food because of the people she met, with the implication that an enthusiasm for this universal, sensual pleasure brought very different people together around a common passion, but Leff’s rant-schtick seems to always include stigmatizing and outgrouping other people *who like food*. According to Leff’s descriptions, I’d be both a chowhound and a foodie: standing on the street eating gravy fries out of a paper cone and sitting down to a 12-course, frou-frou potato-themed meal I spent $100 on both sound like a great way to spend some time to me, but Leff has built his “chowhound” brand on tribalism, pissing on “foodies,” on marginalizing an imagined group of foodsnobs, so all of a sudden I’ve got to pick a tribe. Fanning resentment to help one group feel superior to another is a great way to unify people and build yourself a movement – just ask Kevin Phillips and modern Republican strategists – but it’s a damned shame to do that to people who love food.

  • Alan Fritzberg

    I grew up in a Swedish family in Washington State. My mother and her sister loved to make a potato dumpling dish called palt which the northern Swedish people ate. Potatoes were one of the few foods they could grow near the Arctic Circle. They grated potatoes, removed most of the water, added flour and made balls of the potato flour mixture. In the middle of the “dumpling” they added some salt pork and boiled the palt until they floated, usually about 20 minutes. They are good right out of the pot, but because they could then be frozen it was a way of storing food that could be stored in barrels, taken out in the winter, fried in butter and that is the way they are the best. It was a kind of survival food for the people who lived that far north in Sweden. Many modern day Swedes have never tasted palt if they are from the south of the country.

  • yzzil1

    I was half asleep when I heard the phrases potato nirvana and penguin guano. Can someone tell me what was the name of the island where these two things cohabit? Thank you.

  • Brendan

    yzzil1, the island — the loneliest in the world — is called Tristan da Cunha.

  • Jim Leff

    “Snarky” maybe…but “judgemental” and “class issues”? Hey, you’re entitled to your impressions, of course, but I think you guys were missing me. I never called merlot swirlers snobs – that’d be ridiculous. I swirl my merlot (well, more frequently cabernet) with the best of them. And guzzle beer. And sip pulque. And eat and drink upscale, downscale, and union scale all over town and all over the world in a fervant effort to find, appreciate, evangelize, and support the good guys, geniuses, and holdouts of every range of every spectrum who cook from heart and soul, seeking to do so much more than squeeze maximal profit from minimal effort.

    The mantra is “deliciousness is deliciousness”, because I think we oughtn’t divide great experiences on basis of price or flash or buzz or ethnicity. It’s all about the deliciousness. I try to be the most open-minded, broad ranging of food critics.

    As someone who lives and loves to suss out iterations of the sort of beauty and greatness our species is capable of producing, it’s true that I have little patience for those (both on the production end and on the consumption end) who settle too much and too easily. I think we all settle far more than we need to. But I don’t elevate myself over anyone, nor am I trying to create an us-versus-them attitude. On contrary, I just want to rile people up into stopping at nothing to cook, eat, consume, and dream with care and passion. I want to include everyone in the notion that they can work a bit harder and go a few blocks further to consume more deliciously, rather than follow the well-tread path.

    If I seem to rant and rave, it’s because I’m trying desperately to break through the numbness, the marketing hypnosis, the snobbery and reverse snobbery and drudgey habit to remind people that life’s not just something to shlep through. I want folks to remember the fleeting moments when they connected with greatness (in its myriad guises), and to persuade them that such moments needn’t be errant peaks. One oughtn’t settle for occasions that are less than special. Greatness ought to be the baseline.

    Merlot swirlers and taco scarfers alike ought to try harder to find the good stuff. I’ve built a web site (Chowhound.com) where thousands of treasure hunters network to swap notes as they ferret out every errant morsel of deliciousness on the chowscape. Folks who used to eat Blimpie’s at lunch are now going a few blocks out of their way for a slightly better sandwich. If you don’t think this is good and helpful and an antidote to the dumbing down and blanding out of society, then I guess we just eat to different drummers!

  • babu

    Jim Leff:

    Thank you immensely for dropping by and posting answers!! We have been missing the participation of you experts in these conversations. Much appreciated.

    I, for one, thought your message came through charmingly in your chosen verbal style.

  • babu

    Kasia’s homefries in Seattle:

    That would be


    4559 University Way NE

    Seattle (U district)

  • JP

    Potatoes for peace and mental health? Of all the great things on earth, imagine that we all missed THAT one. I wonder if Hitler ate enough potatoes, or maybe George should get more fries. My friends, that sounds a little strange. Will potatoes combat corn overproduction? That would be a good fight: Spuds vs. Ears, with a halftime presentation by Soybeans. Sponsored by Micky D’s and Cargill. Oy…

  • Gadzooks


    Tristan de Cunha was not settled by shipwreck survivors…It’s a far more interesting story. Check it out.

  • bft

    What P.A.M. Dirac (the quantum physicist) likes best in America is potatoes:


  • bft

    What Apple should name their forthcoming cell-phone-iPod device: the Potato! http://apnews.excite.com/article/20061220/D8M4BGV80.html

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