The Truth About Potatoes

  On a visit to Australia in 2006, I had my first potato—or, to be more precise, the first one that actuallyPotatoes tasted like a potato. It had been dug out of the ground 20 minutes before and was rich, flavorful and complex in taste.

Potatoes are currently getting a bad rap in the U.S., and no wonder. They are generally fried as a component of fast food, and shoulder a good deal of the blame for the obesity epidemic sweeping the country. In fact, new USDA guidelines recommend eliminating potatoes entirely from school breakfasts, and severely cutting back on them during lunches. As always, the culprit is the French fry.

Ironically, French fries aren’t even French—they’re Belgian. The French fry occupies pride of place in Belgium’s culinary landscape, which is dotted with makeshift takeout stands called fritkots. No one would accuse these potatoes of being good for you. They’re generally fried twice in beef drippings, and served with a heavy dose of mayonnaise. The key to the Belgian fry is apparently the Bintje, a special variety of potato well on its way to extinction (the Belgians eat roughly one-third more fires per capita than Americans).

A large order of fries at McDonalds contains 500 calories and 25 grams of fat. Burger King is slightly worse, at 540 calories and 27 grams of fat; Wendy’s may have natural-cut fries, but the statistics are about the same (530 calories and 25 grams of fat). No matter how you slice them, you’re still not in Belgium.

By contrast, one medium potato contains around the same weight as a large order of fries. It delivers 160 calories and no (none, zero) fat. It is high in vitamins, particularly C and B6, and provides about one-fourth of the minimum required daily intake of potassium. You can actually top it with several tablespoons of butter and still be ahead of the game—and, if you have a connection to a local farmer or green market, it might even taste like something.

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