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Canada’s newest heritage potato

Bob Wildfong

There is no universal definition for a heritage variety, but most of us agree that fifty years is long enough to declare a popular variety to be part of our collective culture. Welcome to the club, our newest heritage potato: the renowned Yukon Gold!

Fifty years ago, Gary Johnston, a potato breeder at the University of Guelph, was intrigued by communities of Dutch immigrants who had established successful farms in southern Ontario. Their preferred yellow-fleshed potatoes were commonplace in Europe at the time, but nearly unknown in Canada where white-fleshed varieties such as Kennebec and Russet Burbank were typical.

Johnston set out to develop a Canadian yellow-fleshed potato, though at the time there was no obvious market for it. To do this, Johnston crossed a good white-fleshed variety called Norgleam with a small, deep-yellow potato that had been developed experimentally from a Peruvian species. Among many crosses and offspring, one plant stood out: its potatoes had creamy yellow flesh, shallow eyes that made it easy to peel, a good size and yield, and a delightful flavour. Johnston named it Yukon Gold.

In 1980, most Canadians had never seen a yellow potato. Grocers were skeptical that anyone would want them. Farmers were skeptical that grocers would buy them. But when customers saw the slogan “The potato with the butter already in it!” the unusual yellow colour seemed more appealing, and some people even claimed that they could really taste the butter.

There was something else that made Yukon Gold special. It had a great name, just like many other potatoes, but what made it a favourite was that it was sold by that name. When you buy fruit and vegetables you usually don't see them sold by variety name (the exception is apples) and potatoes were no different. Responding to the media attention that Johnston had helped generate, a few major producers put the name “Yukon Gold” on their potato bags. The magazine articles responded in suit, and people hunted for the new celebrity spud in their supermarkets.

The star power of this new potato had a remarkable effect on the culinary status of potatoes overall. Whereas potatoes had been a staple food for centuries, they had always been thought of as mere sustenance. Yukon Gold changed that, putting the potato at center stage.

Yukon Gold also broke the barrier to accepting greater diversity in potatoes. Once consumers realized that potatoes didn't all have to be the same, other shapes and colours seemed worth a try too. Red and purple-skinned varieties appeared in stores. Fingerlings and novelty heritage varieties such as purple-fleshed potatoes became delicacies, sought by chefs and foodies.

Today, you can regularly find several categories of potatoes. But you probably won't see the Yukon Gold name very much. Although it opened the door to a richer diversity of potatoes, Yukon Gold is not the only yellow potato, and it turns out that it isn't the best of them. It is susceptible to common potato viruses that threaten its yield, and it suffers from a common quality problem called “hollow heart”.

Farmers and processors prefer to rely on other yellow-fleshed varieties. Names like Innovator, HO2000, Saginaw Gold, and Baby Boomer might not sound familiar but those are some of the varieties now sold as “Yellow-fleshed potatoes” in your local grocery store.

Nevertheless, the Yukon Gold name holds a lot of charm for chefs and home cooks alike, so it is still the leading yellow variety in Canada. It graces tables in expensive restaurants, commands premium prices around the world, and makes a really good baked potato on your barbecue.

Gary Johnston passed away in 2000 at age 85, knowing that his most famous crop introduction was enjoyed far and wide. Like most food plant varieties, it may not withstand the inexorable changes in agriculture, climate, and food processing that force old favourites to be replaced by new ones, but Yukon Gold will forever remain an exemplary Canadian heritage variety that opened Canada's kitchens to novel experiences, inspired more people to try new foods, and ultimately strengthened Canadian agriculture by rewarding diversity.

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Bob Wildfong is the Executive Director of Seeds of Diversity.

Find out more about Gary Johnston and his Yukon Gold potato at the University of Guelph’s Potato Research Program website.

Photo: Potato Research Program, University of Guelph

 

 

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