The first time Mammaw and Pappaw showed me how to “scratch for taters” – my little hands scribbled and scrabbled around the base of the plant. My eyes were squinted shut so I could “see” underground with my fingers. When they wrapped around the first potato I ever harvested, I felt like a miner with his first nugget of gold. I had potato fever! It was what we called an “Irish” or “New” potato – small, round and red. Mammaw cooked it in a separate pot just for me. She cut it in half and drizzled butter and chopped fresh parsley over it. I added a little salt and cracked black pepper and then I bit into what felt like a miracle. That mouthful of joy had been hiding under dirt.
When Margie at Wild Blue Farm in Tomales first showed me an Ozette potato, I thought of that day. This was the first year they had grown this rare new “rock star” of the potato world. She told me a little bit about how it had been discovered. They were also called Anna Cheeka’s potatoes, because she was the person from the Makah Tribe that provided the original seed for current farmers. I was so excited about Ozettes and when I was on the KWMR Farm Report two days later, I began talking about this strange potato with a fascinating story. When Lyons, the host, asked me the name of this amazing potato – I froze - the only name that came to me was Ozzy Osbourne. Lyons wanted to know how it got that name, I had to say that wasn’t really the name but that it was close – I knew that it sounded like that and it sorted of looked like the Ozzy Osbourne of the tuber world. The host, Lyons, quickly said, “well perhaps you can give us the real name and more facts next week,” and we moved the conversation over to kohlrabi – which reminds me of Lady GaGa – but I didn’t say that.
It’s not easy when you don’t fit the mold. And that’s why we’ve lost so many food treasures. Imagine boxing billions of potatoes that are shaped like the mutant offspring of Mr. Peanut. And it was probably because Mr. and Mrs. Peanut had been forced to live 50 feet from illegally placed high powered cell antennas in a corrupt city, until they could move to beautiful West Marin where their odd shapes were cherished – oops – wrong story – that would be me and my husband.
Back to Anna Cheeka’s wonderful legacy. David Ronninger, who was a successful Idaho potato farmer, got the initial seeds from Anna in the late 1980’s and introduced it to the fresh market. This was indicative of a movement around the world to preserve foods from our past that were being lost because they didn’t work well in the mass distribution model. The story is that the potato was brought from Peru by Spanish exploreers to the Makah Indians at Neah Bay on Washington’s Olympic peninsula, where it has been grown since the 1700’s.
New DNA testing challenges the notion of Peruvian/Andean origin – just like the Jerry Springer Show! Is Peru your Daddy or is it some other Andean region? NO! Mexico or Chile are probably where the Ozette originated. Testing also showed the Ozette has nearby cousin in Alaska – the Maria’s potato which has been growing in a Native Alaskan garden. The Ozette is under the protection of Slow Food Seattle and you can find out more of the history by clicking here. They haven’t yet updated with the DNA data, but if you want to look at the DNA technical abstract done by the USDA click here. If you want me to stop with the technical data and tell you about how they taste….keep reading.
Ozette’s are a fingerling and not all of them are multi-knobbed, I just happen to love the look of those. Most of them are single tubers and typical fingerling size – maybe a touch smaller. The potatoes have a cool curvy, wavy kind of look due to lots of shallow pyramid shaped eyes. So even if their shape might make them anathema to the commercial potato industry, their taste makes them a darling to anyone who loves to cook or eat. And for farmers and backyard gardeners , this potato is said to grow well in all conditions. Tough and tasty.
Earthy, nutty, truffle-like are some of the words to describe the flavor of the Ozette. These flavors were prominent to me and made them a great choice to go with game, pork tenderloin and Daddy’s venison. I also cooked them whole, under a roasting chicken – they held up, absorbed some chicken flavor, yet still sang that earthy note. Roasting, steaming, sauteed and boiled/mashed were the ways I prepared them. My favorites were sauteed and roasted. But make sure to try steaming – it gives you the opportunity to really taste the potato – just finish it the way my Mammaw did my first potato.