ORONO, Maine - As you go about your shopping this spring, keep your eyes peeled for a new potato hitting the market. The Caribou Russet is the latest variety to emerge from the University of Maine experimental potato lab.
Jennifer Mitchell recently checked in to see how new potatoes are created and what makes the Caribou Russet so special, when there are thousands of varieties to choose from.
Archival audio: "The potato was brought from its native home in Peru to Spain, and in time, back to America, and now spreads its green over countless acres throughout the world."
It's the third most frequently consumed food crop worldwide. Today, the average American eats 142 pounds of potatoes per year. That's a slight dip since this 1940's film extolling the virtues of the spud was made. But demand is still strong.
Archival audio: "A universal food for the millions, and the millionaires."
With more than 7,000 wild and cultivated varieties of potatoes, consumers today are spoiled, but the push to create a better potato never stops.
"There's no perfect potato variety," says Greg Porter. "I suspect there's no perfect variety of any crop." Porter runs the potato lab at the University of Maine. "And as you release the new variety you're trying to figure out the balance of, what are the advantages? Does it have enough merit to be worthy of the investment that's to be required, both to continue research on it, but then to scale up and commercialize it?"
The university has numerous potato experiments in progress at any given time, and it takes about a decade from the very first pollination to the point where the tuber is ready for a test market.
Most will not make the cut, but one potato has: "AF33621" was recently given a more distinguished name: the "Caribou Russet."
"All right, so what is different about this potato than what I would find, say, in the store right now?" I ask Porter.
"Well, it has really high quality for both fresh consumption - so as a baked potato or as a mashed potato - and it also makes good quality French fries - healthier French fries than our standard varieties. From the grower's stand point, it produces very high yields with very good internal quality: nice white flesh, very little hollow heart, which is a common defect in most of our russet varieties."
If you've ever chopped open a potato and found a strange brownish spot with a cavity in it, that's hollow heart. It's a stress condition that occurs when the spud grows too quickly. And while not dangerous or unhealthy, it can look unappealing to consumers.
The Caribou Russet is also capable of growing to a big size. Picture 8-inch-long French fries.
But how is a potato actually created? Matt Schultheis is a student at the lab. "I'm collecting pollen from individual clusters and then taking pollen from other plants and applying them to the stigma of individual other clusters that we have made for crossing by taking the anthers off and applying the pollen directly to the stigma," Schultheis explains.
Translation: potatoes have both male and female organs. To get a new variety, the male anthers from one plant are removed so it won't pollinate itself. Then, using a modifed electric toothbrush, the pollen of a second plant is collected and painted onto the female bits, the stigma, of the first plant.
Ideally, each plant will bring something good to the table. In the case of Caribou Russet, it has a strong lineage. Its parents included the Silverton Russet, which endowed it with high yields, and a Reeves Kingpin, which contributed the hollow heart resistance.
But Caribou Russet has a big test in the coming months: the national French fry trials, where it will be assessed for fry quality at five different locations across the country.
The holy grail of potatoes, says Porter, would be one with all the flavor of a classic russet, one that could still shine as mash, with no hollow heart, and strong resistance to the three most common blights and diseases.
Experts say such a spud would be decades away.