Famous Potatoes


We’ve got a National Potato Month (September) and a National Potato Day (August 19), but potatoes, frankly, are interesting (and fun) any time of the year.

Famous incidents in the life of the potato include Richard Dreyfuss’s mashed-potato sculpture in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Dan Quayle’s career-crushing 1992 misspelling of POTATO(E); the debut (in 1952) of the perennially popular Mr. Potato Head; and the deciphering of the potato genome, which is when we discovered that potatoes have more genes than we do. And, of course, there’s much more.

  Rebecca Rupp’s How Carrots Won the Trojan War (Storey Publishing, 2011) – a reader-friendly overview of the history and science of garden vegetables from Asparagus to Turnip – includes a chapter on potatoes. Learn about Henry VIII’s favorite pie, Marie Antoinette’s potato-blossom hair-do, John Dillinger’s potato-based escape from jail, and the devastating 18th-century Potato War. Intended for adults, but there’s something interesting here for all.


  Aubrey Davis’s The Enormous Potato (Kids Can Press, 1999) is a re-telling of the familiar folktale in which a farmer grows the most enormous – say, potato – in the world, which requires the help of every person and creature in sight to unearth. Similar huge vegetable tales include Aleksei Tolstoy’s The Gigantic Turnip (Barefoot Books, 2009), Jan Peck’s The Giant Carrot (Dial, 1998), Cherie Stihler’s The Giant Cabbage (Sasquatch Books, 2003) and Dianne de las Casas’s The Gigantic Sweet Potato (Pelican Publishing, 2010). For ages 4-7.
For a lesson plan to accompany The Enormous Potato, see The Enormous Kinder Garden (subtitled “Books about planting enormous things”).
  In Tomie de Paola’s Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato (Puffin, 1997), Jamie – the laziest man in Ireland – is used to having his wife, Eileen, do all the work. Then Eileen wrenches her back and is laid up in bed, and it’s all over to Jamie – who captures a leprechaun and gets a seed for the biggest potato (pratie) ever.  For ages 4-8.
  In Michael Ian Black’s delightful picture book I’m Bored (Simon & Schuster, 2012), a bored little girl in pigtails is smacked down by an equally bored potato, who announces that kids are the ultimate in boring. Outraged, the girl sets out to show the potato how creative and fun kids can be, what with games, acrobatics, and imaginative pretend play, in which she becomes everything from a ballerina to a pirate. (“Boring,” the potato responds.) Reverse psychology with a twist for ages 3-8.
I’m Bored at illustrator Debbie Ohi’s website has activities to accompany the book. For example, kids write their own story pages, make potato prints, and learn to say “I’m bored” in a dozen different languages.
  In John Coy’s Two Old Potatoes and Me (Dragonfly Books, 2009), with wonderful illustrations by Carolyn Fisher,  a little girl is about to toss a pair of old sprouted potatoes into the trash, when her dad suggests that they plant them instead. They do, and raise a new crop of potatoes. The greater message has to do with conservation, intergenerational relationships, and the survival of family after divorce. For ages 5-8.
A Dads & Kids Book Club lesson plan for Two Old Potatoes and Me for preschoolers and early-elementary-level kids includes discussion questions and suggested activities, among them making potato prints and cooking mashed potatoes with creative toppings.
  Kate Lied’s Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2002) is a family story, originally written by an eight-year-old about her grandparents, Clarence and Agnes. When the Great Depression hit, Clarence lost his job – so they borrowed a car and drove to Idaho to work digging potatoes. A perk of the job was that they were allowed to dig leftovers to keep – and at the end of the harvest season, they headed home, loaded with potatoes to carry them through the winter. For ages 5-8.
  In Anita Lobel’s Potatoes, Potatoes (Greenwillow Books, 2004), neighboring countries are at war and, rather than tending their crops and chickens, the people spend all their time making cannonballs, sharpening swords, and sewing buttons on soldiers’ uniforms. Except, that is, for one woman, who builds a wall around her little farm to protect her potatoes and her two sons.  Eventually, however, the boys grow up and decide that they too want to become soldiers – and end up as commanders of opposing armies. When the war destroys their mother’s home, however, they realize the dreadful damage that they’ve done – and at last the war ends. A good discussion book for ages 5-8.
  In Kathleen D. Lindsey’s Sweet Potato Pie (Lee & Low Books, 2008), set in the early 1900s, crops have failed due to drought and eight-year-old Sadie’s family is at risk of losing their farm. All that has survived are the sweet potatoes – so, in a bid to save their home, the whole family pitches in to make and sell sweet potato pies. A lovely family story for ages 5-9.
From the Powell Center for Economic Literacy, Sweet Potato Pie is an economics-based lesson plan to accompany the book, targeted at grades 1-3.
  This recipe for Old-Fashioned Sweet Potato Pie comes from the Food Network.
  In Erin Berlin’s The Potato Chip Puzzles (Puffin, 2010), puzzle-lover Winston Breen and friends enter a puzzle competition sponsored by potato chip magnate Dmitri Simon in an attempt to win a huge cash prize for their school. The plot involves a zealous math teacher, a lot of brain-bending puzzles, and a dangerous saboteur. For ages 8-12. Other puzzle-filled Winston Breen mysteries include The Puzzling World of Winston Breen (Puffin, 2009) and The Puzzler’s Mansion (Putnam Juvenile Books, 2012).
For synopses of the books and downloadable copies of the puzzles, visit The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.
  In Ellen Raskin’s The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (Puffin, 2011), teenaged art student Dickory Dock takes a job as painter’s assistant at 12 Cobble Lane and ends up helping the painter and friends solve crimes. For ages 10 and up.
  Bake a batch of Tattooed Potatoes with this recipe from Dish ‘n’ That.
  Potatoes are about all there is to eat on the occupied island of Guernsey during World War II. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial Press, 2009) is a wonderful epistolary novel that begins when – just post-World-War-II – author Juliet Ashton gets a letter from Guernsey pig farmer Dawsey Adams, written because one of her books found its way into his hands. Juliet becomes increasingly involved with the islanders and their experiences under the Nazis – a story that is tragic, brave, and hopeful, with a lovely happy ending. For teenagers and adults.


  Ellen Weiss’s From Eye to Potato (Children’s Press, 2007) is an overview of the life cycle of the potato, with a simple text and terrific color photographs. For ages 4-7.
  Rosalind Creasy’s Blue Potatoes, Orange Tomatoes (Sierra Club Books for Children, 2000) is a picture-book gardening guide to growing vegetables in out-of-the-ordinary colors – not only blue potatoes and orange tomatoes, but red popcorn, yellow watermelon, and purple string beans. For ages 6-9.
  Ellen Rodger’s The Biography of Potatoes (Crabtree Publishing, 2007) is one of the How Did They Get Here? Series, each volume of which traces the history and global impact of such staples as chocolate, coffee, cotton, rice, rubber, sugar, tomatoes, wheat, wool – and, here, potatoes. The book, in 32 illustrated pages, covers the life and times of potatoes, from their origin in the Andes Mountains of Peru – the Incas grew them – through their impact on workers’ diets, the Irish potato famine, potato farming today, and modern potato products. For ages 7-11.
  By Deborah Peterson and Millicent Selsam, Don’t Throw It, Grow It! (Storey Publishing, 2008) has instructions for growing 68 different windowsill plants from kitchen scraps – among them a potted potato. Fun for all.
  In Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (Random House, 2002), a fascinating discussion of the convoluted relationships between human beings and plants, the section on the potato covers the history of the potato and the way in which biotechnology – via genetic engineering – is changing the potato’s future. Highly recommended for teenagers and adults.
  From the UK Potato Council, Grow Your Own Potatoes is a multi-part lesson plan, with instructions, printable fact sheets and worksheets, activities, interactive games, and recipes. The twelve lessons are categorized under “Growing Potatoes,” “Knowing Potatoes,” “Healthy Eating and Potatoes,” and “Cooking Potatoes.”
  Potatoes: Goodness Unearthed has recipes, resources for educators, a fact-filled Potato Party coloring book, printable activity sheets, a great “DIG THIS” potato poster, and more.
  From Mashed to Riches is a lesson plan targeted at grades K-3 in which kids learn about the various kids of potatoes, make potato prints, sprout sweet potatoes and keep a potato journal, play a game of “Hot Potato,” and make mashed potatoes.
  From the USDA’s Team Nutrition, Sweet Potato Hill is a preschool lesson booklet on sweet potatoes with projects, worksheets, and recipes.
  From Fordham University’s Modern History Sourcebook, Accounts of the Potato Revolution has a collection of primary sources on potatoes, dated 1695-1845.
  From Smithsonian magazine, How the Potato Changed the World is a reader-friendly history of the potato and how it led to modern industrial agriculture.
Got your potato facts down? Try this potato trivia quiz.
The Potato Museum claims to have the world’s largest collection of all things potato.


  Gaylia Taylor’s George Crum and the Saratoga Chip (Lee & Low Books, 2011) is the picture-book story of the African-American/native American cook at Saratoga’s Moon’s Lake House who – frustrated by a customer who incessantly complained that his French fries weren’t cut thin enough – chopped potatoes paper-thin and invented the now-famous potato chip. For ages 7-11.
  For more on George Crum and his potato chips, visit the Inventor of the Week Archive: George Crum
  The Atlas of Popular Culture has an illustrated history of potato chips with maps, a timeline, and a list of references.
  For a video showing how potato chips are manufactured, see YouTube’s How They Make Potato Chips.
  What do Pringles potato chips have to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity? Find out at The Math of Pringles.
  The Potato Chip Challenge is an annual K-12 engineering contest in which participants design a package that will protect a potato chip sent through the mail such that it arrives intact. Visit the website for information and rules.


  Keith Baker’s Potato Joe (Harcourt Children’s Books, 2008) is a clever take on the traditional “One Potato, Two Potato” counting rhyme, featuring a lot of cheerful potatoes variously playing tic-tac-toe, in the snow, at a rodeo, and in the dirt underground, where potatoes grow. For ages 3-6.
  Cynthia DeFelice’s One Potato, Two Potato (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) is a charming exercise in magic and math. Mr. and Mrs. O’Grady are so poor that they have just one of everything – until they find a mysterious pot that doubles whatever falls into it. For ages 5-8.
  Though nothing to do with potatoes, a nice connection here is Edward Eager’s Half Magic (Sandpiper, 1999), originally published in 1954, in which four children find a coin that grants them wishes – but only half of every wish. A great impetus for learning how to multiply by two.  For ages 8-12.
  Greg Tang’s Math Potatoes (Scholastic Press, 2005) is one of a creative series of witty illustrated rhyming math picture books – beginning with The Grapes of Math (Scholastic, 2004) – that demonstrate quick tricks for solving arithmetic problems by grouping numbers. For ages 7 and up.
For interactive online math puzzles, printable worksheets, and more information on the books, visit Greg Tang’s World of Math
  In Potato Olympics, a math lesson for grades K-8, kids measure potatoes, invent characters for their potatoes, decorate their potatoes, create literary pieces about their potatoes, and hold a math-based Spuds Sports Festival.


  Allen Kurzweil’s Potato Chip Science (Workman Publishing Company, 2010) is a book-and-kit combo that uses everything potato – including potatoes, potato chips, and potato chip containers – for 29 “incredible” experiments and projects, ranging from building a bird feeder to making potato-based fingerprint powder and a potato shrunken head. For ages 8-12.
Also see the accompanying Potato Chip Science website.
  From Science Buddies, How Greasy Is Your Potato Chip? is a science project on fats in chips, with a list of questions, background information, experimental procedure, and forms for collecting data and plotting graphs.
  Steve Spangler’s Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2010) is a collection of marvelous, messy, and irresistible science experiments, variously categorized under “The Power of Air,” “Kitchen Chemistry,” “Dry Ice,” “Gooey Wonders,” and “Don’t Try This at Home…Try It at a Friend’s Home!” The book is illustrated with color photographs and has complete instructions and explanations. The experiments are great, and at least two of them involve potatoes. For ages 8 and up.
For instructions for individual Spangler experiments, see Straw Through Potato (a great trick) and Launching Potatoes (make your own spud gun).
  Robert Gurstelle’s Backyard Ballistics (Chicago Review Press, 2001) has step-by-step instructions for building thirteen cheap, but thrilling, ballistic devices, from match rockets and tabletop catapults to fire kites and potato cannons. Included are explanations of the physics behind each device and profiles of such ballistic-savvy scientists as Robert Goddard and Sir Isaac Newton. With caution, for ages 9 and up.
For the science of spud guns (several kinds), see How Spud Guns Work.
  Test for starch! And all you need is iodine. The Do It Yourself Starch Test has instructions, explanations, and some great pictures of starch-positive potatoes.
  From Kidzworld, find out how a potato battery works and learn how to make one of your own. Also see Food Batteries, which adds some chemistry and lists questions to investigate.
  A Potato Clock Kit (4M) – powered by potatoes – is available from a number of online suppiers, among them http://www.amazon.com (about $9). Everything supplied but the potatoes.
  Scientists have sequenced the potato genome – and found that it has some 39,000 genes (about 10,000 more than you).  Read about it here and here
  From Penn State, Potato Mountain is a middle-grade lesson in reading and understanding topographic maps using a potato. Also with potatoes, see Visualizing Topographic Maps and Contour Lines.
  Potato Earth? A satellite-based image of how gravity varies over the surface of the Earth makes our planet look like a giant potato. Read about it here


  Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (Sandpiper, 2005) is a compelling history of the horrific 19th-century Irish potato famine, a disaster with global implications. The book is 192 pages long, illustrated with period prints, maps, and a timeline, and including first-person anecdotes and accounts. For ages 12 and up.
  Patricia Reilly Giff’s Nory Ryan’s Song (Yearling, 2002) is a fictionalized tale of the Irish potato famine, through the eyes of 12-year-old Nory Ryan, whose family has farmed and fished for generations on Ireland’s Maidin Bay. Then the famine strikes. Nory’s older sister leaves Ireland for New York; her father fails to return home from the sea; and Nory struggles to survive and ultimately to find her family a home in America. For ages 9 and up.
  Nory’s story continues in Maggie’s Door (Yearling, 2005), in which Nory and her friend Sean Red Mallon, in alternating voices, tell the harrowing stories of their respective journeys to America; and Water Street (Yearling, 2008), set in 1875, and told in the alternating voices of Bird Mallon, Nory and Sean’s daughter, and her neighbor, young Thomas Neary.
Nory Ryan’s Song at Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site has discussion questions and activities to accompany Nory Ryan’s Song, along with a list of related books.
  Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (Penguin Books, 1991) is an excellent history of a terrible event. For older teenagers and adults.
At The History Place, Irish Potato Famine has a reader-friendly chronological history of the  Famine with an extensive bibliography. For ages 12 and up.
From The Free Market, What Caused the Irish Potato Famine? discusses the economic and political forces behind the disaster.
  The Irish Famine is a world history exercise for high-school-level students, in which Irish and English perspectives on the famine are compared using primary sources.
From the BBC, The Irish Famine covers the history and causes of the Irish potato famine.


  Selected by Neil Phillip, Hot Potato: Mealtime Rhymes (Clarion, 2004) is a collection of 18 cheerful poems about food by such poets as Edward Lear, Mary Ann Hoberman, Douglas Florian, Lewis Carroll, and A.A. Milne.
  Spud Songs: An Anthology of Potato Poems (Helicon Nine Editions, 1999), edited by Gloria Vando and Robert Stewart, is a nearly 200-page collection of potato poems by – among many others – X.J. Kennedy, Joyce Carol Oates, Seamus Heaney, and Denise Levertov. It’s currently out of print, but is available in inexpensive used editions – or check your local library. For teenagers and adults.
  Kenn Nesbit’s Mashed Potatoes on the Ceiling is a must for vegetable avoiders.
  See Pablo Neruda’s potato-loving Ode to Fried Potatoes.
  Daniel Nyikos’s Potato Soup begins “I set up my computer and webcam in the kitchen/So I can ask my mother’s and aunt’s advice/As I cook soup for the first time alone.”
  Joseph Stroud’s The Potato is set in the Andes, original home of the potato.
  Dancing potatoes. Read The Potato’s Dance by Vachel Lindsay.
  Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s Digging makes a wonderful connection between potatoes and poetry.
  A poem for gardeners: Amy King’s Digging Potatoes, Sebago, Maine.
  See Leonard Nathan’s The Potato Eaters.


  The Potato Eaters, finished in 1885, is considered by many critics to be Vincent Van Gogh’s first great work of art. The Van Gogh Gallery has a brief history and analysis of the painting.
  From the WAH Center in Brooklyn, NY, the Potato Revolution is an exhibition of contemporary potato art, of which there is a surprising amount.
  For some impressively creative potatoes, see Potato Art and Sculptures.
  Peter Pink’s Potato Revolution features installation displays of very cool potatoes in pink sunglasses.
  TeacherVision’s Potato Print Wrapping Paper and Family Education’s Potato Prints have instructions for fun and simple potato art projects.
  For a dot art tiny-potato-print project suitable for preschoolers, see Potato Art.
  For step-by-step instructions and more projects involving potato stamps and prints, see Easy Crafts for Kids


Mr. Potato Head, who first went on the market in 1952, is still going strong – and in many permutations, among them Darth Tater, complete with helmet and light saber. Back in the day, Mr. Potato Head was the first toy to be advertised on TV.

  Funny Face! by Mark Rich and Jeff Potocsnak (Krause Publications, 2002) is a fascinating and heavily illustrated short history of potato heads and related toys. For teenagers and adults, but the pictures are great for all ages.
  Owners of the original Mr. Potato Head had to supply their own (real) potatoes. Read all about it here.
  Don Wulffson’s Toys! Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions (Henry Holt and Company, 2000) is a catchy history of such classic toys as slinkies, seesaws, silly putty, bicycles, checkers, kites, and Trivial Pursuit – and, of course, Mr. Potato Head. With black-and-white cartoon illustrations, for ages 9 and up.
  Templates and instructions for making a felt Mr. Potato Head Quiet Book can be found at Oopsey Daisy Quiet Book Templates.
  The Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head Craft has templates and instructions for a papercraft potato-head project.
  For a breakfast version of Mr. Potato Head (with a pancake), see Kitchen Fun with My Three Sons.
  Make a steampunk Mr. Potato Head. You’ll need, among other things, Sculpey clay, metal dohickeys, and copper-colored acrylic paint.


  Ouch. Dan Quayle’s fatal potato spelling mistake can be viewed in this YouTube clip.
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