On the mysterious trail of the Bodega Red potato.
This is a story of buried treasure. The tale of a wayward sailor, Luther Burbank, Chilean immigrants, Mexican land grants, an arranged marriage, blight, neglect, racism, a play, a song, a band, and distrust. This, naturally, is the story of a potato.
The Bodega Red potato, to be exact.
Frequently mentioned by Luther Burbank and thought to be the predecessor of his famed Burbank Red potato, the Bodega Red was once the favored potato of Sonoma County. It grew so hardily and was so well liked for its thin skin, nutty flavor, and great cooking qualities that we were briefly the premiere potato purveyor in California, back in 1850, when the population was a bit smaller.
Most potatoes have come our way via a circuitous route, generally following from Peru to Europe, Europe to the U.S. One of only six potato varieties so far found to have made it to North America directly from South America—Chile, in this case—the Bodega Red is a heritage breed that may have come with a land-sick sailor when he jumped ship in Bodega Bay or may have had its seeds sewn into the hem of a dress worn by a young bride arriving here over 150 years ago to marry a stranger who needed a foreign wife to secure a local land grant. No one is really certain.
What is known is that the Chileno Valley west of Petaluma is named for the numerous Chileans immigrants who settled there. That the Squatter’s War of 1859 broke up land grant strictures in Western Sonoma County in order to facilitate more potato planting. That the Bodega Red was so popular and grew so well that it was shipped to the gold fields to feed the Forty-Niners. And that Spud Point in Bodega Bay was named for the tuber after a boatload of the vegetables memorably sank there. At its height, some 60,000 pounds of Bodega Reds left our fields each year.
And then it all stopped.
By the 1970s, the Bodega Red potato was thought to be extinct, kaput, gone—a victim of its own success, institutionalized racism, and a local taste for the thing that found 19th century farmers eating the best ones and returning the poor growers back to the earth. That eventually led to a weaker genetic strain susceptible to the same blight that brought Ireland its infamous famine. Disease and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 run. There was no labor left to pick what potatoes didn’t succumb. Presumably, the Bodega Red was forgotten. Except that several long-standing families from Chileno Valley to Two Rock to Bodega continued to quietly grow it, eat it, and enjoy it. Telling no one.
No good mystery is complete without a detective. Enter Elissa Rubin-Mahon. A chef with a business purveying preserved foods, Rubin-Mahon is also active in the Slow Food Sonoma County North convivia and works on the Ark of Taste, in which seeds from such heritage products as the Gravenstein apple are saved to forestall extinction.
In 2005, her friend Judy Christensen was reading Press Democrat historian emeritus Gay LeBaron’s book, Santa Rosa, a 19th Century Town, and came across mention of a potato with which she was unfamiliar. Christensen thought Rubin-Mahon might be interested in tracking it down for the Ark. She was more than correct.
“I started looking around and found the names of some people who were growing the potato,” Rubin-Mahon says. “I tried contacting them but they didn’t contact me back.”
“There were some lumpy times when we were talking about the tissue cultures and they freaked out thinking that we were trying to make a GMO from this. But generally, they’ve been pretty supportive of the project.” Elissa Rubin-Mahon
In fact, Rubin-Mahon says that no one would talk to her about the potato.
“I understand it,” she says. “You have families who have been on their land for a very long time, since the 1850s. I came to Sonoma County in 1975, and it was pretty empty then. I’ve seen so much change, I can kind of understand why they might be taken aback when someone says, ‘Oh, you’ve got blah-blah-blah, and I want some.’”
Spurred by her rebuke from area families, Rubin-Mahon turned to friends at the Bodega Land Trust. Claiming that she had no interest in the tuber beyond its historical associations (when all the while she was planning to reintroduce it to area fields and certainly eat it) she says she was “able to procure some potatoes from an anonymous source. It could have been a supermarket potato for all we knew.”
The next step in her mission was to verify the potato. She reached out to UC Davis Extension farm advisor Paul Vossen who, she says, mostly wanted to know what she wanted from “an old potato anyway when the new ones are better.” But he referred her to retired UC Davis professor Ron Voss, who in turn referred her to Dr. Chuck Brown, a USDA researcher in Washington state who was working on the six unique varieties of straight-from-South-America potatoes that had all migrated up our West Coast. He requested samples and photos. She sent them. And waited. For several years.
It was worth the wait.
In 2009, Dr. Brown confirmed that her samples were “indeed distinct and had originated in Chile,” Rubin-Mahon says, which corresponded with what Luther Burbank had written. He also connected her with Pure Potato, a company that specializes in reinvigorating heirloom produce. They were eventually able to isolate clean, blight-free potato seeds that were ready for planting.
The Bodega Land Trust planted some Bodega Reds in its demonstration garden. Rubin-Mahon nominated it for Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. Even the initially recalcitrant farm families slowly thawed.
“I’d wanted to eat it all along,” Rubin-Mahon says with evident glee, “And they became a lot more involved at that point after they saw that I wasn’t some nurseryman trying to take the potato away from them. There were some lumpy times when we were talking about the tissue cultures and they freaked out thinking that we were trying to make a GMO from this. But generally, they’ve been pretty supportive of the project.”
The Bodega Red was back.
In 2012, Bodega Red potato seeds were given to a handful of local farms, including HomeFarm and Bernier Farms in Healdsburg, First Light Farm in Sebastopol, and Wild Garden Farm in Chileno Valley, among others. The initial seeds were very expensive, and each farm was given a small amount. Two years down the road, the farms produce their own potato seeds and its numbers are rapidly growing.
Roanne Kaplow of Wild Garden Farm reports, “This is my second year of growing the potatoes and they are very well adapted to the climate here. It grows beautifully, it’s very versatile in recipes, and it stores well.”
Rubin-Mahon praises the potato’s flavor as “a combination of floury and creamy. If you steam it,” she says, “it’s almost like a russet. It also makes the most amazing potato chips you can imagine. I was worried at one point that they wouldn’t taste good.”
Local restaurants like Backyard in Forestville and Spoonbar in Healdsburg now feature the Bodega Red on their menus, and it should appear at farm markets and local grocers this summer.
What’s more, the tuber has its own fan base, the Bodega Red Potato Club, and its own tribute act, the Bodega Red Potato Band. A short musical play, “Manuela, Beauty of Bodega” (she of the potato-lined dress), written by Rancho Bodega Historical Society’s chief archivist Robin Rudderow, premiered this May. It features a song titled, “O, Bodega!” intended to be sung to the tune of “O, Susanna!”
Sample lyrics run thus:
Our beauty from Peru
We’ll keep planting red potatoes
In fond memory of you.
From Chile not Peru,
They are called Bodega Reds and
They are mighty tasty, too.
Elissa Rubin-Mahon has reason to feel proud. Her self-proclaimed “nagging mother” instincts finally paid off.
“My feeling is that, if people just looked around and remembered what they used to eat, or paid attention to the plants that interest them, they should find out about them and pass it along,” she says. “That’s how we’re able to bring things back.”
She sighs with evident satisfaction. “It’s not gone until it’s really gone.”