Remember the infernal potato fallout from 2018’s “harvest from hell?”
Yeah, me neither.
Now, almost exactly a year later, we’re being warned of possibly spending the holidays pining over frites past. Billed as “the french fry lovers worst nightmare” (although surely, worse things could happen), unseasonably cold, wet weather in Canada and the U.S. has hit potato harvests hard, Bloomberg News reports.
In Alberta and Idaho, farmers were apparently able to salvage most of their crops — roughly 6.5 per cent of Albertan potatoes are thought to be damaged — those in Manitoba, Minnesota and North Dakota weren’t so lucky. Due to the severity of the snow and rain that swept in with an early winter, farmers in Manitoba were forced to leave 18 per cent of their crops frozen in the ground, which is equivalent to the total amount of unharvested crops in the entire country last year. Prince Edward Island, Canada’s largest potato producer (Manitoba is the second, followed by Alberta), is expected to release its harvest numbers on Friday.
While this has prompted headlines spelling doom and gloom, industry professionals are weighing in with assurances. “It’s a manageable situation,” Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada, told Bloomberg News. “Potatoes are going to have to move from one channel to another that they sometimes don’t move in a normal year.” And: “Don’t panic about the French fries,” Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission, told The New York Times. “You can still go out and order them like you normally do.”
So, there were be french fries, it’s just that your order might be a few short.
The focus on french fries with a potato shortage looming may seem odd given all the different iterations the humble spud offers, but there is good reason to focus on the fast-food staple. The past few years of frozen french fry consumption in Canada has been creeping upwards from 235,700 metric tons in 2016/17 to 238,600 in 2017/18 and 241,500 in 2018/19, according to Statista. The unexpectedly cold fall weather is also especially problematic for french fries because processors typically prefer larger, more elongated spuds. These are the potatoes that stay in the ground longer, making them more vulnerable to harsh weather as winter nears.
If a potato shortage did turn out to actually impact eating habits, however, french fries wouldn’t exactly be topping my list of concerns. There’s no arguing against the irresistible combination of fat, salt and carbs (hello, potato chips) — but the root vegetable offers up so many more interesting opportunities. You can choose-your-own-adventure with potato skins or fluffy baked potatoes (and accordion-like hasselback variations). There are countless options for roasting and layering in creamy gratins (a.k.a. scalloped potatoes), and boiling for vinegary or mayonnaise-rich potato salads.
Leading the imperative category for me, though, especially given the upcoming Jewish Festival of Lights (Dec. 22-30), is what The Jewish Cookbook author Leah Koenig calls the “undisputed king of Ashkenazi Hanukkah celebrations”: potato latkes. The beauty of the latke, all crisp exterior and tender interior, speaks to the superiority of the pancake/fritter group in general when looking at potato formats. Whether rösti (and its relative, the hash brown), reibekuchen, potato cake or batata vada, if these dishes were struck from the menu, we would undoubtedly be much poorer for it.
Then we have the puréed and mashed category: the likes of aligot, aloo pie, bangers and mash, brændende kærlighed, colcannon, pâté chinois, pomme purée, shepherd’s (or cottage) pie and stamppot. All obviously critical, and especially suitable for this time of year when no holiday table is complete without at least a few warming, starchy dishes.
And who could imagine a world without the potato croquette — aloo tikki, croquetas, goroke, korokke and kroket — and its cousin, the tater tot? Not to mention the potato dumpling; bryndzové halušky and gnocchi to name but two.
It turns out that the very thing we’re being told to fear — a lack of french fries — is something that could prove beneficial. French fries are among the least interesting things we’ve ever done with the potato. (Unless, of course, they’re served with cheese curds and gravy. Now, we’re talking.) Going through a fry shortage could finally push us toward considering the many — and for my money, better — potato alternatives.
They may be hand-held, portable and convenient, but give me aligot — cheesy and molten — or a latke topped with a dollop of rosy applesauce over some sad, pallid fast-food fries any day. Tossing fried potatoes with salt and calling it a day is a gimme when it comes to creating highly craveable food. As a food from the Americas that has conquered the world, it deserves more consideration that that.