Gaye LeBaron: Four-ton potato has roots that go back to Luther Burbank
Would it surprise you to hear that Luther Burbank invented the Tater Tot?
Of course it would. The mild-mannered gardener who accomplished what seemed like hybridizing miracles in his Santa Rosa garden a century and more ago never saw a Tater Tot, never ate one, never even heard of one. But, as they say on all the cop shows now, “his DNA is in there somewhere.”
You will undoubtedly hear all about it this week when the Big Idaho Potato Truck comes to Sonoma County.
This 72-foot motorized behemoth, carrying a 28-foot, 8,000-pound fiberglass potato, has been touring the country since 2012, celebrating the centennial of Idaho’s Potato Commission. It will be parked beside Luther Burbank Home & Gardens for public viewing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday. It then will head to Sebastopol for a viewing event Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in front of the West County Museum.
Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Home & Gardens docents have been readying the gardens for company all month and have all sorts of potato-related activities planned — most of them for kids.
They have even borrowed a boxful of Mr. Potato Head toys from Sonoma State’s life science department where they are used as hands-on learning tools to teach genetics. Who knew? Luther as Mr. Potato Head? Hey, whatever works.
It’s a little surprising that the Big Idaho Potato Truck (emphasis on “Big”), now in its eighth touring season, hasn’t found its way to Luther’s “chosen spot” before this year, considering all he has meant, botanically and historically, to Idaho’s pride and joy.
Of course, LB didn’t invent the potato either, but the potato that Idaho celebrates — arguably the most popular vegetable in the USA — bears his imprint — and his name.
It is the one that feeds many millions, whether baked, French-fried or “tatered,” and it is a variation of the potato young Luther “discovered” in his New England market garden in 1872.
It is also a direct descendant of the tuber which, three years later, helped pay for the curious young gardener’s train ticket to Santa Rosa.
In his early 20s, he was curious enough about the nature of things to recognize the value of a rare seed ball forming on an Early Rose potato plant in his tiny market garden in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. And he was smart enough to know that the Early Rose never (well, almost never) sets seed. He had never seen such a rarity, and he never would again. For a time, in later years, he offered a reward for anyone who would bring him another. He never had to pay up.
The Lunenburg seed ball had 23 seeds. Luther planted them and, as his biographers report, got 21 “failures” and kept two, which he fostered for two seasons before choosing the better one. It proved to be very, very good, doubling the potatoes-per-plant of its Early Rose parent and being acclaimed as an excellent “baker.”
It also became Burbank’s ticket to California and greater glory. He sold his very promising new potato to a seedsman named Gregory who had tried one crop and pronounced it “the best potato I ever ate.”