NEW MARKET, Va. -- The old potato patch just isn't the same anymore.
Time was, you'd be eyeing only a few potato varieties: whites, bakers or reds.
But now, gardeners are going for the golds. Or yearning for yellows. Or rooting for reds. Or they're building a taste for blue or purple varieties in their potato plots.
"We're seeing quite a swing into yellow potatoes, which is probably the most popular potato in Europe," says David Ronniger, president and owner of Ronnigers Potato Farm near Moyie Springs, Idaho. "You're also seeing blue potatoes and blue potato chips. Red may be next."
By that, he means red-skinned potato varieties with white, pink or yellow flesh. Blue-skinned potatoes with white or blue flesh. Yellow-skinned varieties with yellow flesh. And more, many more.
"Yellows taste a little nutty or butter-flavored," Ronniger says. "They're not as moist as the standard reds, or as dry as the whites or russets."
You're also beginning to see spuds of different shapes and sizes.
Fingerling potatoes, for example, are a different kind of tater-tot. They're peanut shaped and small - something like the cherry tomatoes of tubers.
"We introduced them about a dozen years ago from Canada by way of Europe," Ronniger says. "They roast well and fingerlings don't break apart when cooked. Chefs have been among the first to pick up on them."
American consumers, then, are running a close second. Potatoes are gaining favor again in the United States after a brief period of decline. Some commercial growers credit specialty stocks for much of the turnaround.
"The '90s were a decade of change in the potato market," says Jim Gerritsen, who with his wife, Megan, operates Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, Maine. "We saw the introduction of (European) heirlooms and some new varieties. All were exceptional in terms of culinary quality."
Gerritsen's 110-acre farm lies in Aroostook County, where schools still close for three weeks in the fall so students can help bring in the potato crop. The Gerritsens raise 16 organic varieties of specialty potatoes and three types of fingerlings for the seed and table markets.
Today's tubers are believed descendants of wild varieties found in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia some 4,500 years ago. Gold-seeking Spanish explorers carried them to Europe, where they eventually became a staple.
Potatoes completed their round-trip journey to the Americas in 1613 when the British sent some as supplies for their New World colonists.
Thomas Jefferson helped popularize potatoes by serving them while living in the White House. He also is credited with introducing French fries, which he had sampled in France.
Gerritsen and other growers are seeing a boost in potato popularity that hasn't been matched since Marie Antoinette appeared at a Parisian banquet wearing potato blossoms in her hair.
"Potatoes over the years had picked up the reputation of being an industrial crop," Gerritsen says. "They tasted like it, too.
"But with Americans becoming more discerning about their potato tastes, you're finding more flavorful varieties in farmer's markets and specialty food stores. And now they're reaching the backyard gardener."
Despite what many have said about so-so flavors in the standards over recent years, potatoes have staked a claim as an excellent nutritional source.
Spuds are high in protein and vitamins, potassium and iron and yield a great deal more food per acre than wheat or any other major crop.
All that and now they're eye-catching, as well. But unlike today's miracle fabrics, they're not necessarily colorfast. When boiled or cooked in the microwave, the vibrant shades you saw in the raw may fade. Bake potatoes to bring out the best flavor and color, many growers say.
The new varieties might also fill a special occasion niche.
The Gerritsens market a colorful collection of baby potatoes: petite blues, reds, yellows, purples and whites for hors d'oeuvres. They call it their "Easter Egg Collection."
Perhaps you could be the first on the block to stir up a potato salad with a Fourth of July theme.
Three cheers for the old Red, White and Blue.
On the Net:
For more information about potato growing, varieties and recipes: http://www.ronnigers.com; http://www.woodprairie.com