Ark of Taste
Bodega Red Potato
For several decades, the Bodega Red Potato disappeared entirely from production. No one could taste the creamy and nutty flavors of this extraordinary potato that once fed California gold miners. Then, a surprising discovery of mysterious tubers started an exciting effort to repatriate Bodega Reds to an area once known as “The Potato Capital of California.”
Bodega Reds are one of only a handful of potato varieties introduced to the United States directly from the potato motherland: South America. Most potato varieties enjoyed in the US are the offspring of European varieties that originated in South America, and were later brought back across the Atlantic during European colonization. Bodega Reds didn’t make that extra boat ride. Instead, they traveled directly north, along the western coast of the United States, all the way to Alaska.
Local legend claims that before the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, the Bodega Red potato jumped ship with a sailor in northern California just above San Francisco at Bodega Bay. The potatoes prospered in this area and soon Marin County became known as “The Potato Capital of California.” Barges carried Bodega Red potatoes from Bodega Bay to San Francisco Bay. One such barge, filled with potatoes, sank at a marina later named Spud Point. Everyone from San Franciscans to gold miners in the Sierra Mountains ate the Bodega Red until its demise during the 1970s. The potato was extremely susceptible to blight and disappeared entirely from production.
Years later, The Bodega Land Trust received a curious, anonymous donation of a few tiny, unidentifiable tubers. As the tubers produced flowers and leaves, horticulturists wondered if the Bodega Red had returned.
Dr. Chuck Brown, a research geneticist working for the USDA Research Service in Washington State, examined the DNA of the tubers using genetic fingerprinting and determined that the potato differed from all modern red varieties. Further genetic testing showed that the potato could have originated from Chilean potatoes, a history that is consistent with the writings of Luther Burbank, the famed horticulturist and botanist who referenced the Bodega Red as the parent material for his Burbank Red potato.
The preservation efforts of the Bodega Land Trust and the scientific research of Dr. Brown successfully resulted in the Bodega Red potato material being cleaned of virus. Today, farmers grow virus-free Red Bodega potatoes on some of the potato’s original acreage but the production is not yet large enough for commercial distribution.
One day soon, Bodega Red enthusiasts hope to taste the delicately thin light red skin of the Bodega Red once again.
Photo credit: Barbara Bowman