History comes in many forms — some of it, apparently, edible.
The foodies are currently all about the resurrection of a local potato known as the "Bodega Red."
We see by the food pages that the Sonoma County North chapter of Slow Food, the international organization established in Italy 24 years ago to combat the effects of fast food on our civilization, has taken up the case of the potato that made Sonoma County rich. For a few early years, at least.
With the good offices of the Sonoma County Land Trust and the work of Department of Agriculture geneticists, survivors of this pioneer crop have been duly identified and named. And they are growing, carefully tended by admiring New Age farmers.
This is interesting stuff for local historians as well as those who pursue food truths in laboratories with microscopes.
Scientists have determined these few survivors are indeed Bodega Red potatoes, thought by many to be lost to the ages.
Scientists can do that. Historians have a harder time. Often, they can only surmise from tales told. Although in the case of this particular potato, there seems to be remarkable amount of agreement.
The Bodega Red, geneticists say, is the product of a Peruvian ancestor. This is hardly a surprise. Most potatoes as we know them, came from ancestors in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. (Ask the knowledgeable owners of Sazon restaurant on Sebastopol Road. Peruvians know their potatoes.)
If there is a mystery involved, it is how that Peruvian potato came here to be modified by the soil and climate of the Sonoma coast.
This is most interesting. But the Bodega Red, lost or found, is only a chapter in the potato annals of Sonoma County. The bigger story, oft told, is about the part potatoes played in the early history of this area.
Potatoes, all kinds of potatoes, were the first commercial crop planted in Sonoma County.
The "Potato Boom" of the 1850s, an indirect result (one of many) of California's epic Gold Rush, was engendered by the sudden and immediate demand for food to feed the thousands of people who flocked to the new town of San Francisco on their way to or from the mines of the Sierra Mother Lode.
To entrepreneurs like the sea captain Steven Smith and other early arrivals, potatoes were the obvious answer. They grow quickly, are sturdy shippers and store well — if kept dry.
Smith, grantee of the Bodega Rancho in the early 1840s, had an entrepreneurial bent. He brought the first steam sawmill to the area, to supply San Francisco with lumber. And he allowed the "squatters" on his coastal land and encouraged them to plant potatoes.
The first potato planters, most historians agree, were John Keyes and Alexander Noble who grew a crop on Bodega Head in 1850 on land the Russians had once plowed for their vegetables.
In order to get the potatoes to market, Keyes bought a little 15-ton schooner named the Spray, stopping at Tomales Bay and carrying passengers as well as potatoes down to San Francisco.
The venture was so successful that others joined in immediately. Capt. Smith's own ship, the Faraway, carried tons of potatoes. Fields of potatoes spread inland to Bodega, north to Green Valley (Graton) and south to Valley Ford. In Big Valley, the area around Bloomfield, it was such a happy crop that Bloomfield became a kind of boomtown of its own, on a smaller scale, and, if local lore is correct, once vied with Santa Rosa to become the county seat, all predicated on the potato.