Save That Potato: The Makah Ozette

Ozette potato 4.jpgThe one little potato tuber I planted in my city garden this year turned out to be a good choice: My single Makah Ozette plant yielded nearly 13 pounds of tubers.

Until recently grown only by the Makah tribe of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the pale-skinned Ozette is called a fingerling for its elongated shape, not its size; my biggest tuber was 8 inches long by 2 inches in diameter. Some other fingerling varieties, of course, can also grow gigantic. A stranger thing about the Makah Ozette’s appearance is its profusion of deep-set eyes, evenly distributed over each tuber. The big and little fingers look puckered like a hand-tacked quilt.

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My Makah Ozette plant, just beginning to yellow at the start of October

Stranger still is the way the plant grows. Although I planted my tiny tuber in a back corner of the garden, where it competed with nearby shrubs and received little water, the plant grew five feet tall. And it kept growing into autumn.

It’s said that potatoes, like tomatoes, come in both determinate and indeterminate types. The determinate ones die soon after producing their tubers, more or less all at once; the indeterminate ones keep on growing until disease, insect predation, or freezing weather kills their tops. Makah Ozette, then, must be indeterminate, and unusually disease-resistant besides. My plant showed no shriveling or discoloration until well into October, after at least a week of steady rain.

Harvest time brought more surprises. First, although the tubers I dug were all close to the surface, they had spread widely from the center of the plant, a foot and a half in all directions. What a clever way, I thought, for a tuberous plant to protect its future generations from soil-borne disease.

Second, the thin skin of the Makah Ozette proved remarkably tough: I could scrub the potatoes immediately after digging without rubbing off any skin. I didn’t need to store these potatoes dirty while they hardened off.

All of the other potato varieties I’ve raised have grown only about two feet tall, have died back in August, and have kept their baby tubers close to Mom. The tubers have had tender skin and shallow eyes, clustered at one end. Why is the Makah Ozette so different?

A 2010 DNA study provides the answer: The Makah Ozette, unlike all the other potato varieties with which I’m familiar, did not derive from the Peruvian potatoes brought to Spain in 1570. Those varieties slowly spread through Europe, and eventually Scottish and Irish immigrants brought them to North America. The first permanent North American potato patches were established in New England in about 1719. From there the potatoes spread westward.

But potatoes reached the Pacific Northwest long before the first big wave of white settlers. The Pacific Fur Company planted potatoes near Astoria in 1811, and the Hudson’s Bay Company grew potatoes and other vegetables at its forts, beginning with Fort Vancouver in 1825. By that year, however, native tribes in the region were already growing and trading potatoes in large quantities. Among these tribes were the Makah.

The DNA study shows that the Makah Ozette, along with two other varieties traditionally grown by Pacific Northwest tribes, is more closely related to Chilean potatoes than to European, North American, or Peruvian cultivars. The researchers concluded that the potatoes reached the Pacific Northwest by ship from Chile, perhaps with a stop in Mexico. The ancestral version of the Makah Ozette may have been brought by the Spanish traders who had a garden with potatoes at Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, from 1790 to 1792, or by the Spanish explorers who, in 1792, built and briefly occupied a fort at Neah Bay, in Makah territory. Or the potatoes may have come with some earlier, forgotten expedition: In 1790, Manuel Quimper noticed natives along the Strait of San Juan de Fuca wearing Chinese, Portuguese, and English coins as earrings, although the people had never seen a ship before.

In any case, the Makah, like other Northwest tribes, took quickly to the potato. The tribes grew potatoes much as they did camas, on “prairies,” and they named this new vegetable after wapato, a water plant whose tubers, harvested by tramping in aquatic mud, taste similar to potatoes. Hunger for potatoes drew the tribes to trade with the fur companies, and success as potato growers drew them back to the posts to sell their crops. In 1854, the ethnologist George Biggs wrote, the Duwamish and other tribes cultivated about thirty acres of potatoes at the outlet of Lake Washington, and they harvested about three thousand bushels. That’s one hundred bushels per acre—the same average yield as for commercial farmers today.

The tribes got out of the potato business when white settlers took over their lands. Some tribes, however, continued planting potatoes in their gardens. The Makah have stewarded their Ozette potato, named for one of their ancient villages, for well over two centuries. Not until the late 1980s did the Makah share the potato with outsiders.

In 2005, the Makah Ozette potato was boarded to the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and in 2008 the Makah Nation, Slow Food Seattle, and local farmers together formed a Slow Food “presidium”—a project to safeguard the future of a traditional food by establishing production standards and promoting local consumption. Today the Makah Ozette is available for planting both by farmers and by home gardeners. I got my seed from Nichols Garden Nursery.

I know I’ve been trying your patience with so much history. You want to know what this potato tastes like, right? Gardeners have variously described the Makah Ozette as earthy, nutty, firm, creamy, and similar to cooked beans. To me the flesh is dry, not so different from that of a russet potato; any nuttiness or beaniness is subtle. Still, I like the Makah Ozette for roasting, and it is delicious boiled whole and dipped in aioli (or seal oil, I suppose, in Makah style), or baked, lightly smashed, and showered with roasted hazelnut oil. The Ozette is excellent for mashing; I boil the tubers whole, slip off the skins, and blend the flesh in an electric mixer with plenty of hot liquid (any combination of cooking water, milk, cream, oil, and melted butter). Along with high productivity and drought- and disease-resistance, good taste is one more reason to try this potato in your garden.