Monday, January 30, 2023

THE IDAHO POTATO MUSEUM: NO SMALL POTATOES, Guest Post by Caroline Hatton at The Intrepid Tourist

Idaho Potato Museum, Blackfoot, Idaho. Many visitors want their photo taken with the big baked potato.

My friend Caroline Hatton, a children’s writer and frequent contributor to this blog, immersed herself in the world of potatoes and took the photos in this post in October 2022.

If you happen to be driving around Idaho, consider visiting the Idaho Potato Museum in the town of Blackfoot, the Potato Capital of the World, on Interstate 15. I spent an hour there enjoying a wealth of information about the humble, yet glorious potato, and admiring the quality of the displays.

Left: 1930s McCormick potato cultivator; Middle: 1930s Oilver one-row pick planter to be pulled by two horses; Right: 1900s sulkey plow to be pulled by two horses.

The museum is located in a former train depot, an old building next to railroad tracks. Even before entering, I got to see a number of antique agricultural implements displayed outdoor. Developed by potato growers, the earliest ones were pulled by up to four horses.

1930s Pugh one-row potato harvester to be pulled by two horses.

Besides the fact that I love rust for its look, hints of stories past, and photo opportunities, I had fun visualizing how the contraptions might work. The harvester in the above photo, when pulled forward, would drive the shovel-like front end into the soil, digging up potatoes. As they “climbed” onto the shovel, potatoes dug-up later would push potatoes dug-up earlier toward the back, off the shovel, up a conveyor belt of metal rungs gently sloping up. The bumping and bouncing would perhaps shake dirt off the potatoes. At the top of the conveyor belt, the potatoes would tumble into a larger receptacle.

The potato originated in the Andes in South America, where the Inca potato footplow or chakitailla, was used long before the 15th century and is still in use today.

The museum is small but stuffed with historical, scientific and commercial info. The potato originated in the Andes in South America where native peoples cultivated it around 200 BC. In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors seeking gold reached Peru. They brought home a treasure: the potato. In the 1600s, it spread through Europe, Africa, China, India, and Russia, and from Ireland to Bermuda, then Virginia. The first recorded potato planting in North America was in Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic coast of Canada, in 1623.

Four horses pull a three-row potato planter designed and built by a grower, around 1935.

Today potatoes are grown in all 50 U.S. states. Idaho offers ideal potato growing conditions: a light volcanic ash soil, aquifer water for irrigation, hot days and cool nights in the summer, and a network of railroads to take potatoes to markets.

Left side: Colorado potato beetle stamps, postcards, and postmarks to educate the public about this pest. Right side:  Stamps featuring a potato merchant (top left) or potatoes.

Irish stamp commemorating the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1850.

Of some 125 potato-growing countries around the world, the five top producers are China, India, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. The potato changed the world and made it to Mars, at least in the movie, “The Martian.”

Half of the museum's collection of stove-top potato bakers.

One third of the museum's collection of sour cream dishes.

The museum exhibits include a collection of collections (potato peelers, stove-top bakers, sour cream ceramic dishes, what may well be the largest collection of potato mashers in the world, postage stamps, toys, vintage posters of science activities for children…) and record-setting potato items (such as the largest potato chip ever made, a Pringle listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, and a bronze sculpture replica of the largest potato ever grown in Idaho).

The gift shop sells lots of potato-themed T-shirts, souvenirs (potato peelers), and food items (potato soup or pancake mixes, seasonings). The café serves baked potatoes best ordered hours in advance so they’re ready when you are. It’s a few dollars more for access to the toppings bar, or for the topping of the day for fearless gourmets. For smaller appetites, the menu includes French fries, potato cupcakes and potato ice-cream.

I didn’t eat at the café, but visiting the Idaho Potato Museum inspired me to reminisce about yummy potato dishes I tasted in my travels (such as plokkfiskur in Iceland, a fish and potato casserole) and plan to make them at home (any day now).

All text and photos, copyright Caroline Arnold.


Monday, January 23, 2023


Mariqua Sunbird, Kenya

With many thanks to our friend Owen Floody, who was my husband's field partner on our trip to East Africa in 1971. Art and I have not been back to Africa since then, but Owen has made numerous trips in recent years and written about several of them for The Intrepid Tourist. His latest report chronicles a trip focused on birds--and much more.

I like birds. I like Africa. So, why not embark on a three-week birding tour of Kenya, especially when fond memories of a past trip strongly endorse the itinerary?  Following this reasoning, I found myself spending most of November 2022, on a birding safari organized by Wings Birdwatching Tours and implemented by Ben’s Ecological Safaris, of Nairobi.

Long-crested Eagle in the Kakamega Forest, Kenya

Critical to the success of this safari were superb efforts by our guide, Brian Finch, and driver/guide, Ben Mugambi. Both were extremely adept at spotting and hearing birds.  And there is not a bird in East Africa that they could see or hear but not identify.

The fact that these efforts were so highly valued reflects, in part, the size, enthusiasm and competence of the audience.  At the outset, it surprised me that our group consisted of me and just three others.  However, it quickly became apparent that this intimacy was more than a luxury: What would be the value of expert guides if you were stuck in a different vehicle and could not hear them?

Access to the guides might be especially important to participants who already are expert birders and anxious to improve their skills by helping to spot and identify as many birds as possible.  With one exception, this perfectly describes the members of this group.  As I said, I like birds.  But I am not a birder.  In contrast, my three companions were dedicated and expert birders with previous birding tours behind them: They knew the drill and were prepared to work hard to expand their life lists.

Malachite Kingfisher, seen near Lake Victoria

And this tour did require effort.  We typically met for breakfast at 6 am, began birding (on foot or from the vehicle) at 6:30, took a brief lunch break at about 2:30 pm, then resumed birding until returning to our lodge at about 6:30.  We then met at 7:30 to review the day’s sightings before moving on to dinner at about 8:30.  This routine was taxing but effective, yielding a total of 578 sightings (of different bird species) over the 3 weeks.  Many of these were lovely.  To illustrate, a few of my favorites are shown in the first three of the associated images, of a Mariqua sunbird, long-crested eagle, and Malachite kingfisher.  However, we were not such purists as to ignore animals other than birds.   


To the contrary, we reacted as enthusiastically as any visitor to Africa to sightings of lions and were captivated by insects and colorful reptiles such as the Mwanza flat-headed agama shown below.

Mwanza flat-headed agama lizard

Though these sightings helped to keep us going, a tiring trip also is eased by scenery that is varied and attractive.  In this connection, our itinerary did exactly what I expected of it.  We visited many areas in central and western Kenya.  These varied on many dimensions and so exposed us to a wide range of habitats and wildlife.  We began by flying to the Samburu/Buffalo Springs National Reserve looking for birds of a savannah made more arid than usual by recent droughts.  Next, we paid a brief visit to a montane forest on the slopes of Mount Kenya, looking for birds of the forest and clearings.  Once back on the road, we headed into and along the Great Rift Valley.  Here, we visited two of the famous Rift Valley lakes, Nakuru and Baringo, focusing on birds of the lakes and lakeshores.   

Kakamega Forest

Next, we spent two days in the Kakamega Forest, an extension into Kenya of the great Congo basin rainforest and one of the few places in East Africa at which rainforest can be found and explored.  This made the forest itself a focal point.  Nevertheless, we worked hard to see as many forest birds as possible.  From Kakamega, we traveled to two areas near Lake Victoria, which forms part of Kenya’s western border.  Birds of the lake and adjacent grasslands were the attractions here (including that in 3rd image).  Finally, we capped our tour with several days in the Masai Mara National Park, one of the world’s most attractive and productive areas for birds and other animals.

Zebra in Masai Mara National Park

Visiting a variety of natural areas in 2022, one could not expect to escape exposure to the consequences of climate change.  We did see evidence of such effects, but they were not always as I expected.  For example, I visited Samburu in 1991, at which time it stood out as relatively lush.  Now, however, it is extremely arid, reflecting the severe droughts that have parched much of Kenya in recent years.  

Flooding in the Rift Valley

In contrast, the problem facing the Rift Valley lakes is excessive water, which has very significantly increased the levels and areas of these lakes since about 2010.  The impacts of these increases are obvious, as drowned stands of trees highlight the increases in lake areas and drowned buildings do the same for the impacts on human life and infrastructure.  The causes of these increases are unknown but could include tectonic activity and local agricultural practices as well as climate change.

Finally, a word on birders and birding tours.  They go together.  In general, I thought that this tour was great: The company was congenial, the itinerary was perfect, and the quality of the guiding was amazing.  Still, I think that this trip clearly is aimed at experienced birders (people who self-identify as birders and have been on at least 1 previous birding tour).  Non-birders certainly can do it (I did) but should only do so with caution and some prior study of what high-level birding is like.    


Monday, January 16, 2023


Pan American Unity, mural by Diego Rivera at SFMOMA, San Francisco

Stretching 74 feet from end to end, Diego Rivera’s giant mural known as Pan American Unity fills the Roberts Gallery on the first floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Painted on ten large panels for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940, it depicts a dizzying array of scenes detailing a past, present, and future that the artist believed were shared across North America.

Detail from center panel.

Rivera had been invited as the featured attraction in Art in Action, a massive exhibition that included artists creating works in front of a live audience.

When the 1940 exposition was over, the panels were moved to the campus of City College of San Francisco, where they remained until the summer of 2021 when the mural was moved temporarily to SFMOMA.

Center panels of Pan American Unity. (Original title, The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent.)

I saw the Pan American Unity mural in December, 2022, on my visit to the museum to see the amazing retrospective of Diego Rivera’s work, Diego Rivera’s America, which focused on his work from the 1920s to mid-1940s. (The retrospective closed January 3, 2023, but the Pan American Unity mural will be on view for another year, until January 2024.) 

The Flower Carrier (1935)

I grew up with a print of Diego Rivera’s painting The Flower Carrier hanging over the piano in our house so when I saw it at the museum it was like meeting an old friend.
I knew that Diego Rivera was a master painter, but I never appreciated the breadth of his work until I saw this exhibit. 

Self Portrait (1941) by Diego Rivera. This image appeared on a Mexican banknote.

Organized chronologically and thematically, the exhibit traced his development to become one of the greatest muralists of all time. He was also a portrait painter, costume designer, book illustrator, and social radical.

Studies for Creation, mural in Mexico City

From the beginning Diego Rivera thought big. On exhibit in one of the first rooms were his studies hands and heads. But unlike the small drawings I made in my sketch book in art school (drawing 50 hands was the first week’s homework assignment) Diego’s were all larger than life, as if for a giant.

The Market (1923-24). Mural painted at the headquarters of the Ministry of Public Education in Mexico City.

I wondered, in advance of going to the museum, how they were going to display Diego Rivera’s murals—since, unlike the Pan American Unity mural which was intended to be portable, most of the others are permanently attached to the walls on which they had been painted. The solution was to project photos of these other murals on the wall of a darkened room. As I stood there admiring the artwork towering before me, a figure of a real person suddenly crossed the screen, opened a door, and disappeared. Then another appeared and walked down the stairs. I realized then that the photos were actually videos, putting us the viewers into the scene and providing a sense of scale.

The Flowered Canoe (1931). A depiction of the canal system, originally built by the Aztecs, and still in use in the south of Mexico City.

The ten thematic galleries of the exhibit are dedicated to places that captured Diego Rivera’s imagination, and to his favorite subjects, such as street markets, popular celebrations, and images of labor and industry.

The Offering. In gallery featuring paintings of mothers and children.

One room contained pictures of mothers and children. Another gallery focused on his portraits, including some of people who were models for his murals.

Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees (1931). Painted for the home of Sigmund and Rosalie Stern in rural San Mateo County. Ansel Adams photographed Rivera painting this mural.

Allegory of California (1930-32). Mural at the stairway of the Pacific Stock Exchange (now City Club), San Francisco. Model for woman is tennis star Helen Wills Moody.

Diego Rivera and Frida (1931) by Frida Kahlo (In the permanent collection of SFMOMA.)

In addition, there was a room of artwork by people influenced by Diego Rivera, including the famous marriage portrait by his wife, Frida Kahlo.The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera in 1929 and came with him to San Francisco in 1930.

The photos of the artwork you see in this post are just a fraction of the photos I took at the exhibit. I like to take photos when I go to a museum to help me remember and as a visual notes. Then, when I get home, I can enjoy the art all over again. I will continue to look at my photos and enjoy the art in Diego Rivera's America for a long time.

Banana, costume design for ballet HP (Horse Power), 1927, by Diego Rivera