The Potato Eaters

Did you know it is the United Nations International Year of the Potato? Darn, I just found out — and the year is almost over! I love potatoes — everything from Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” to the tubers themselves. I used to eat them for breakfast, just baked with nothing on them. If I can find enough sunny room in my garden, I hope to grow them this coming summer.

On the Year of the Potato web site, I read that the potato is the food of the future: With its rich Andean heritage, it is being rediscovered as a nutritious crop that can feed an increasingly hungry world. The site even offers recipes, from Irish potato soup to Indian potato fudge. (And if you want more, Michael Pollan‘s wonderful book, The Botany of Desire, delves into the history, including of course the Irish Potato Famine. Pollan makes the case that plants like the potato, the tulip, the apple tree and marijuana control us.)

So what does the potato have to do with art?

Philadelphia photographer Al Wachlin Jr.  is marking the year of the potato with an exhibit on the changing landscape of the northern Maine potato farmer.   Titled Aroostook: Potato Houses of Northern Maine, the images depict the region where  potato farming is the mainstay of the economy.  The show will run through Dec. 28 at 3rd Street Gallery in Old City, Philadelphia.

Potato barns, or “potato houses” as they are called in Aroostook, are old wooden barns, in effect large root cellars  — and, sadly, they are vanishing from the landscape.  Some are torn down and rebuilt using more more energy efficient materials, and others are abandoned, left in the field to rot and be reclaimed by the elements they once guarded against.

The traditions that once defined this region are also slipping away, leaving a community torn between nostalgia and necessity, notes the photographer.   In what was once an isolated region of the country, farmers depended heavily on school children to bring in their harvest.  Now, with farming on the decline,  modern mechanized methods of harvesting, and more and more small farms being consolidated into efficient models of scale, school children are no longer relied upon.

“A tradition that helped bond a new generation with the old is slowly disappearing.   I felt the need to capture the changing industry and the urgency to get it before it’s gone,” says Mr. Wachlin. “It has also brought me closer to that part of my family’s past and I look forward to continuing my trips north and expanding the scope of what I am investigating.”

Mr. Wachlin used black and white film for older barns printed on a handmade, hand-coated paper.  The newer barn images are shown in color and printed on a specially coated sheet metal. 

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2 Responses to The Potato Eaters

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  2. Ilene, I used to grow a few potatoes and they were surprisingly easy. The gratification level was right up there with tomatoes; I got a real sense of satisfaction from digging my own right before dinner. Enjoy!

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