On a fine July day on Prince Edward Island last summer, farmer Peter Roberts rolled up the door on a 200-by-80-foot storage shed, and out wafted an incomparable aroma: sweet cream and fresh-dug soil. It was the perfume of 4.5 million pounds of russet potatoes. Amassed into a towering tan hillock, the tubers awaited shipment to processors to be transformed into french fries and hash browns by the billions.
“My grandfather started the farm in the 1950s. Then my father took it over,” said Roberts, palming a russet the size of his hand. “I went to school, but I wasn’t studious. I knew what I was going to do. I like it. You’re out in the fresh air.”
It takes hard work and humility. “The day before you plant, you pick rocks,” Roberts told me, explaining why his kids won’t be following him in the family business. “One daughter came home and just said, ‘Dad, I quit. I’m not picking rocks anymore.’ When you’re in high school, potato farming is not cool.”
But there’s beauty to it—especially on Prince Edward Island, as bucolic a place as there is on this planet. Here, lush green farmlands roll into forests bounded by ocean and crisscrossed by streams. Holsteins laze in seaside meadows near shacks garlanded in multicolored buoys. And in summer, pink and purple and white blossoms with yellow centers bloom on dark, leafy plants that thrive in the iron-red soil. They are the flowers that signal the growth of one of the most important foods on Canada’s “Food Island”: potatoes, the most prized ones dug just as they start to form in midsummer.
That’s why I was on PEI. You see, I’m a bit of a potato obsessive. I come from a family in which my respective grandmothers’ best-cooked dishes were latkes and potato pierogies. As a journalist, I’ve traveled to the Andes to visit growers in the tuber’s birthplace, and I’ve interviewed potato geneticists in the States. But I had never eaten the fresh crop at first blush right from the ground, when the little round newbies taste astonishingly milky.
In North America, Canada’s smallest province is the place to experience that flavor. Warm summers, chilly winters, and the right amount of rain help the tubers soak up the soil’s mineral goodness, and the island’s isolation keeps disease pressure down. Potatoes grow so well here that an island you can drive across in three hours supplies a third of Canada’s crop—in 150 varieties. Sixty percent of the harvest goes to processors; the rest are table and seed potatoes. PEI is the world’s second-biggest exporter of the starter spuds from whose eyes new plants sprout. Since the 1700s, when European settlers first brought the tubers (a reverse migration for the New World export), they’ve been part of PEI’s identity. It seems like every islander is related to a potato farmer; many tell stories like Roberts’ of a childhood job walking behind a harvester to glean stray tubers left in the fields.
After work, there’s supper. Though vacationing mainlanders might crave seafood, there’s nothing that goes with summer’s lobster as well as a bowl of steamed ivory creamers dressed in melted butter and parsley or crowned with sour cream. And when the tourists leave in September, potatoes stay on the table. Mashed, fried, or scalloped; chopped into salads; or simmered in soups, potatoes anchor the meals on this island. They root the plates to the earth.
That’s why Taylore Darnel calls the class she walked me through “The Ubiquitous Potato.” Darnel was then the executive chef at The Table, a culinary studio in a converted clapboard church about 15 minutes from Roberts’ farm. There, she taught visiting gastronomes how to cook the local bounty: a multi-colored potato strata layered with russets, red skins, Yukon Golds, and inky little blues; potato and pickled beet salad; potato bread enriched with black garlic; nut-rolled chocolate truffles, dense and moist with the addition of mashed potatoes. “You can’t not have a potato class on Prince Edward Island,” said Darnel. “Wherever you look there’s potato fields.”
From the northern beaches on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the southern coast facing Nova Scotia, from Bay Fortune on the eastern shore to O’Leary in the west, I traversed those fields in search of restaurants serving up PEI’s potatoey deliciousness. The Blue Mussel Cafe in the fishing village of North Rustico was packed full of diners devouring pan-seared halibut sided by roasted russet wedges; baby reds doused in garlic, rosemary, and local butter; or, most intriguing, mashed potatoes spiked with green apple, the fruit adding a sweet-sour tang to the spuds.
At Richard’s Fresh Seafood beside the Covehead Harbour Lighthouse, children licked salt from fingers dunked into bags full of hand-cut fries—crisp on the outside, fluffy within—that came with their parents’ hefty lobster BLTs, the crustacean’s rich meat dressed in tarragon mayonnaise. On a rocky spit of beach in the Northumberland Strait, Point Prim Chowder House ladled out their stockpot namesake, smoky with finnan haddie and chock-full of local clams and new potatoes.
In the capital of Charlottetown, I visited a floating food court in the harbor, where staff at The Chip Shack piled gravy and cheese curds, plus ground beef and peas, on PEI’s improvement on poutine: “FWTW,” fries with the works. Nimrods’ pizzaiolos fired the popular weekly special—roasted potatoes over garlic-cream sauce with crispy bacon, sharp island cheddar, chives, and sour cream on a chewy crust—in a Neopolitan oven that bobbed on a raft in the water. That indulgent combination floored me.
Elsewhere, there were spice-dusted riffs on homemade potato chips, a potato salad with kernels of sweet corn, and tiny roasted organic creamers, sweet and silky, grown by the VanNieuwenhuyzen brothers, three strapping guys whose parents came from the Netherlands in the 1980s, chasing the opportunity this self-named “Garden of the Gulf” afforded farmers.
Though PEI’s producers work sustainably, with cover crops to curb erosion and buffer zones protecting waterways, only a tiny fraction farm organically; the VanNieuwenhuyzens do it on a large scale. They also cultivate many of the gemlike spuds that get sold in stateside supermarkets through The Little Potato Company. On the boutique side of things, there’s Kevin Petrie, the young agronomist at chef Michael Smith’s The Inn at Bay Fortune. There, hand-grown Russian Banana fingerlings and golden Yukon gems, Purple Chiefs and big Red Norlands find their way into the nightly FireWorks Feast. Smith is a Food Network veteran, and an evening with him is an interactive extravaganza, beginning with a cocktail-in-hand farm tour. The night I was there, Petrie delivered a rapid-fire disquisition on small-scale organic production as he led guests around the plots where Smith’s cooks learn to respect their ingredients by pitching in, squashing potato bugs between their fingers.
The communal feast was cooked over roaring flames. Island halibut came with a brown butter–toasted spud, its center punched out and nutmeg-flecked pommes puree spooned in; there was a salmon roe–topped new potato and potatoes poached in whey.
“Potatoes four ways. For me that would be just baked, roasted, boiled, fried,” said one of my tablemates. She had grown up on a potato farm. “My mom fed the crew. I helped. We had meat and potatoes every night.”
Umpteen courses in, we were stuffed. Then a server proffered what Smith called “seconds.” That night, it was the ribs of an Inn-pampered pig with mounds of roasted new potatoes. It was delicious torture to find the room to taste it.
Still, despite the feast’s flamboyance, the most popular of Smith’s dishes was his most humble: an exemplar of a homestyle tart that derives its fame from the way it’s composed, in layers of oozing cheese and tender sliced spuds baked with plenty of garlic and herbs inside a crust composed entirely of bacon. It’s everything you want for breakfast in one handsome slice.
“Potatoes, they’re iconic, a huge part of PEI,” the chef told me. “The potato industry are good, hard-working people.”
That’s true even of the youngest among them. The following morning on Randy Visser’s 1,000 acres in Orwell Cove, a field hand named Leah Jay knelt in ruddy dirt and exclaimed, “Let’s get digging!” She was all of 3 years old. Other kids filled 50-pound crates with the season’s final new potatoes, writing their names on slips of paper so that Visser could keep track of what he owed them.
“We have some really early land, quite sandy and light, so we can plant it with early-maturing potatoes,” said Visser. “We involve the kids. Even though they’re in a rural setting, how exposed are they to what farming is about? Do they know how a potato grows? There’s such a disconnect nowadays. I think it’s good for them. It’s work, but it’s fun.”
And it’s lucrative. They’d be paid $6 a crate; a few weeks ago, when the spuds were scarcer, they had earned twice as much. Soon, the new potatoes would be gone. By October, the bulk of the crop would be harvested. Then the tubers, built for storage, would sit until their turn came for market.
“The whole design of the plant is to take energy from the sun, water, and nutrients and put it in the potato,” Visser explained. “Then it flowers and dies; the tuber forms a skin, gets hardy, and goes dormant. It’s amazing how that plant’s made to feed people. It’s designed for exactly what we’re doing with it.”
Flowering, digging, storing, eating—that cycle is so important that the three weeks or so when the plants are in bloom is celebration time. I spent my final night on PEI in O’Leary, home to the Canadian Potato Museum, where a 14-foot fiberglass spud perches at the entrance. The cafeteria was serving up airy potato biscuits, and in a historical exhibit, I learned that the price of potato blossoms had ballooned in 18th-century Paris after Marie Antoinette wore a garland of them in her hair.
The farmers of O’Leary seemed almost as excited about the flowers as did the prerevolutionary French. The town was holding its 51st annual PEI Potato Blossom Festival. In an off-season ice rink ringed in banners for advertisers like H.F. Stewart potato handling equipment, the farmers’ banquet ensued. The newly crowned Miss Potato Blossom served Little Miss Potato Blossom a healthy portion of mashed potatoes from the buffet line. Plaques were handed out for the Hired Hand Award, the Potato Producer of the Year.
The farmers needed this party; 2018 had been tough, with a drought that caused spuds to grow in knobby fits and starts and an autumn deluge that left the fields a quagmire. In his remarks, Robert Henderson, then PEI’s Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, blamed climate change. The speaker who followed said, “I’m going to be short and sweet. I’ve seen potatoes coming up. They have flowers on them. Something is positive. I hope every one of you has one of the biggest crops that you’ve ever taken in.”
The next morning brought the Canadian National Potato Peeling Competition. Peelers flying, a team wearing potato-sack vests denuded 10.4 pounds of spuds in minutes and clinched the title. Festival chairperson Faye MacWilliams stood up. “Please support our farmers and eat lots of potatoes,” she implored.
Intending to do just that, I headed back to Charlottetown for one more potato-laden chowder before I flew, a farmstand bag of PEI new potatoes smuggled in my luggage.