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Potato experience

Potatoes drawing

My first experience with cooking a vegetable was literally explosive. As a child I lived in Bunbury when it was still a small country town. We had a large backyard, at the far end of which was a sand patch, ideal for trying things not meant for adult eyes. For as long as I could remember I had been fascinated by the mysteries of my mother's pressure cooker and how it transformed raw stuff into food so quickly.

One day I decided to make my own pressure cooker and cook for myself. Knowing that the old gallon-sized Akta-Vite[1] tin had a tight rubber seal with a lid that took a huge effort to remove, I decided this would be ideal.

Fortuitously (as it seemed at the time), such a tin happened to be handy and accordingly I slipped down to the sand patch, armed with three or four potatoes. A fire was lit, spuds and water added, lid tightly fastened, and I sat down to wait.

After what seemed an age, I decided the potatoes must surely be cooked. Childhood impatience overruling prudence, I used a screwdriver to (hopefully) slowly prise the lid ajar.

Without warning the lid rocketed upwards on a column of steam and a noise somewhere between a bomb exploding and a thunderclap informed the neighbours that something unique and unexpected had occurred. The infant health nurse, whose clinic and residence was next door, rushed over to see who might have been injured. There were the inevitable explanations to be confessed subsequently.

As for the potatoes: the good news was they were indeed cooked to an ideal level of softness. The bad news - the rubber seal flavour was infused into the potatoes resulting in acrid inedibility. At least I came to no harm - oddly, I have never tried the Akta-Vite technique of cooking again.

Evan Bayliss

[1] Akta-Vite was (and still is) a granulated chocolate preparation similar to Milo and Quik, probably with less sugar and with more vitamins and nutrients than the others. It was especially popular in the 1950s and 60s as it was considered nutritious and was Australian owned. It could be mixed with milk or alternatively sprinkled on fruit, cereals or desserts, which was how I preferred it.
The history of potatoes

The potato was originally one of up to 120 related species growing wild from Texas south along the western coast of South America. Following the conquest of the Incan empire, the Spanish exported the precursor of today's many varieties to Europe. Initially the taste was more bitter than it is now and was not particularly popular with European farmers. However, the situation changed with selective breeding and by the mid-18th century it had become a staple crop in many places, especially central and Eastern Europe and Ireland. Reliance on a single crop coupled with unusually wet winters and infestation by potato blight resulted in the catastrophic Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Potatoes are well known for the multitude of ways they can be cooked and processed, including steaming, boiling, baking, roasting and frying, resulting in products ranging from those considered healthy to junk food.

Over the years they have been used for a vast range of other purposes due in large part to the properties of potato starch. At one end are the more whimsical or bizarre uses such as the original Mr Potato Head toys, potato pop guns and potato ink stamps. Potato starch can be fermented into vodka or schnapps or converted into biofuel. It has been used in adhesives and employed in home remedies for cleaning, cosmetic and medical purposes, including removing tarnish from silver.