30 July 2012

The Epic Demise of The Late Great Baked Potato

Humanity is facing a new challenge: the Baked Potato has appeared on the international food list of “Most in Danger of Becoming Extinct.” The timeframe for extinction is some time in the next twenty years (perhaps even sooner according to other sources). 

For decades, the Baked Potato was living large in North America, Europe and many other parts of the world.  As late as the 1990s it was thriving in fast-food restaurants, and in eastern Canada, where they slathered it with their own kind of “love” called poutine.  But now the Baked Potato, if not dead to the epicurean world, is experiencing one of the fastest declines since the gelatin molds of the 1950s.

Admittedly, the Baked Potato (like so many celebs) was responsible for its own present precarious condition, at least in part. Not very long ago, the Baked Potato was riding the crest its popularity wave basking in the warmth, not of the lowly oven, but of fame. It was being lauded for its versatility and basic tastiness as the popular “Stuffed Baked Potato Skin.” 

As far as I can tell, it was about this time that the Baked Potato began running with the late-night crowd. He started becoming closely associated with pubs, bars, and club dining.  Was the Baked Potato trying to put some distance between itself and the family dinner-table wholesomeness?  Was it feeling uncomfortable with its famously pedestrian chums at the dinner table: the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Bacon-Bits?  Both the Dough Boy and Bacon-Bits have remained firmly attached to their middle class meat-loaf roots—neither rising nor falling dramatically.  It makes me wonder, did the Baked Potato have higher aspirations all along--did he see his future stretching out in a great parochial shadow when he looked at The Boy and B-Bits?

The beginning of the end for the Baked Potato started when he began hanging around at Kmart looking for a frankfurter. I know it sounds like an odd match, but who are we to judge? Some speculate this was a sign of early onset dementia—perhaps the Baked Potato thought the Kmart window resembled an old Woolworths, which used to grill and serve hot dogs. But I think he just wanted to be hip, that he needed to get off the dinner table and out of the house, and he was looking for a bigger, cooler group to hang with.  Unfortunately, all the Baked Potato found at Kmart was bad company, cheap watches, and a broken Dr Pepper soda machine.

Around the time the Baked Potato was getting in with the wrong crowd, we saw the near simultaneous Rise of the French Fry (it’s been speculated that this is partly due a deal made with Coke).  The French Fry, once a humble little guy, threw off his greasy, home-grown roots with along his reputation of running with the hard-rocking, late-night party crowd. He calculated rightly that if Mick Jagger could be respectable, then it was the Fry’s time for his own makeover. The Fry went directly into Starch Rehab where he became acquainted with all the upmarket spices and twists. Unfortunately, the Baked Potato chose poorly: instead of putting himself out there, he retreated. By simply adopting a James Dean-style detachment, he seemed disengaged and uninteresting. As a result, the Baked Potato only lost ground.

Perhaps you noticed the French Fry popping up in some of the best restaurants in Leiden, Belgium, Sidney and in Buckingham Palace? Well, the French Fry didn’t exactly “pop up.”  No, the French Fry’s menu dominance is more strategy than serendipity.  Indeed, the French Fry was deliberate in carving out his turf.  Rather than seeking to unsettle the noodle or the pasta from their native territories or uproot the bulgurs, naans, nachos, tortillas, pitas and chapattis from their native zones, he left them alone.

But every other part of the food world was fair game and the French Fry conducted all-out “scorched earth” operation, battling for the palates of the globe from his rival and one-time friend, the Baked Potato. His campaign was so successful that former strongholds of the Baked Potato now favor the Fry (places like Ukraine and Russia, for example). The French Fry’s zero-tolerance survival campaign was so successful that Romanians of this generation have never even tried a Baked Potato (my Romanian daughter-in-law never had a Baked Potato until she had one at our dinner table.)  In Canada, a place which traditionally has welcomed potatoes of all sorts, poutine goes with French Fries, and never with potatoes. But if you order potatoes in a Montreal restaurant, they will come mashed. 

Very recently my husband and I were very nearly speechless when we thought we had a Baked Potato-sighting here in Jakarta. My husband pointed out “Baked Potato” on the menu at The Kitchenette in Plaza Indonesia, his eyes glistened with excitement, and his voice barely above a whisper, “Look!” 
“I’ll have a Baked Potato!” he loudly announced, joyously stabbing the menu. But, when his fish was served what was with it? the Hipster Cousin, the French Fry. My normally ebullient and easygoing husband glumly sent it back.  Since that first time, we have returned twice to The Kitchenette, and each time he has ordered the Baked Potato. He has yet to see one.  I think we may never return judging from his behavior the last time we were there.
This past time, he (once again, and against my pleadings) ordered a Baked Potato. And, once again he didn’t get a Baked Potato.  When he called the waiter back, he uncharacteristically pointed to the menu and said loudly: “Baked potato!” he then pointed to the potato-and-mystery-vegetable casserole masquerading as a Baked Potato and said flatly (and with some edge), “Not Baked Potato!” 
The poor waiter happened to be one of the many messengers bearing the sad news of the demise of the Baked Potato, and here was my husband (verbally) shooting him.  The waiter, on the edge of tears, fled to the kitchen.
I leaned forward and murmured gently to my husband:
“Dear, you have worked all over the world in the past 30 years. It’s hard to accept certain losses. Can you accept that we are witnessing the Epic Demise of the Late Great Baked Potato?”  He didn’t respond, but just put his head in his hands. 

The following evening, to console, I made him several baked potatoes. The restaurant experience brought the truth home like a hammer: the Baked Potato is not yet dead, but it can only survive through our individual efforts.
- Charity Johnson