Warning – includes several freak potatoes.
According to the “History of the potato” page on the Potatoes New Zealand website, “the potato’s story begins about 8,000 years ago near Lake Titicaca”, and while that story undulates its way through human cultural, political and culinary history, let us skip forward a bit to the humble root vegetable’s most important contribution: novelty news items. Here are 16 of the best local examples, ranked from pretty good to utterly transcendent.
16. Papakura potato spill, 2012
A good solid story combining two of the staples of contemporary life in New Zealand: traffic disruption and potato-based jokes. The Herald report on a truck releasing its load across a Papakura onramp began: “Drivers had to keep their eyes peeled yesterday morning after a trailer lost its load of spuds on the Southern Motorway.”
15. Freak potato, 1932
Just beneath a strip of photos from the vice-regal ball in Wellington, page 12 of the Timaru Herald on May 4, 1932, presented the frankly disgusting sight of a freak potato, with a human expression and curiously shaped ears. It’s really no wonder the grower was startled upon digging the abomination up.
14. Camilla’s potato tornado, 2012
Is this a novelty potato story? Not really, no, but it is the Duchess Of Cornwall, aka Camilla, having a great time in Feilding with a potato spiral on a stick, and I thought you’d want to see it.
13. Monster spud, 2015
Simply 1.5kg of pure potato gold (and green). Graham Reid is reported by the Southland Times as saying: “Someone told me I should put whiskers in it.”
Points off for failing to call it a freak potato.
12. Freak potato, 1936
Unusual and hideous, no thank you Mr Thomas. From the Christchurch Press. The answer to your question is 1.8kg.
11. Penis potato, 2019
On February 21, 2019, a man from Lower Hutt went digging in his garden and discovered what he recognised immediately as a “potato shaped like a penis … including testicles”. He auctioned it and, heartwarmingly, donated the proceeds to prostate cancer research. The potato (shaped like a penis) fetched $274.99
It was a bumper year for penis-shaped root vegetables on Trade Me. The penis potato was the year’s seventh most popular Trade Me post, with 57,312 views, but it couldn’t match a penis-shaped kūmara, which ranked fifth, clocking up 88,507 views. (The most viewed auction that year was a Bunnings hat purported to have been discarded by the unruly tourists.) (Editor’s note: for the purposes of this article the definition of “potato” does not extend to kūmara. We hope to properly explore novelty kūmara stories in a future edition of The Spinoff.)
The Lower Hutt man has a 100% feedback rating from 52 other Trade Me users. Recent comments on his engagements include “Fast and easy trade”; “Fantastic trader”; and “Good Trade Thankyou”.
10. Freak potato, 1934
In July, the Christchurch Press revealed to readers a “weird specimen”, in the form of a handsome duck-shaped potato. Alert to the perils of misinformation, the paper grilled the unnamed photographer, but, well, there’s something suspicious about the curvature, you know?
Regrettably the photographic reproduction lets down another avian potato, as paraded in a 1932 edition of the Waikato Independent:
9. The chipocalypse, 2017
The Irish suffered a devastating, nation-defining potato famine across seven years from 1845, with around a million people dying through starvation or disease. They called it “the bad times”. In New Zealand, heavy rainfall led to a bad crop in 2017, and we called it a “chipocalyspe” and “potatogeddon”.
The British had a lot to answer for in the Irish famine, and they were at it again in 2017, with imperial mouthpieces like the BBC and the Guardian mislabelling chips as “crisps”.
The New Zealand Herald reported Chris Claridge, chief executive of Potatoes New Zealand, as saying “while it is true that the crops have been wiped out by bad weather, there is no shortage looming”.
8 to 5. Freak potatoes, various
The freak potato photography genre is unquestionably glorious, but there is something special and evocative about the conjuring up of a freak potato from nothing but the written word. Case in point: this, which came directly after the cricket notes and before the Port of Oamaru tide tables in the Otago Daily Times of January 23, 1948.
This from the Waikato Times of 1937 is strong, too:
And an honourable mention to this syntactically interesting example, from the Timaru Herald “news and notes” column, March 1935, republished here in full:
As close readers of the freak potato content in this article (all of which are sourced via New Zealand’s best website, Papers Past) will note, almost all are from either side of the second world war, when pressures on space and the public mood presumably did not allow for such potato novelty. But there is one exception, in keeping with the war effort, from the Waikato Times, January 28, 1942, where it appeared alongside an editorial column assessing recent remarks by Joseph Stalin:
4. Freak potato, 1937
When The Spinoff showed this Otago Daily Times photograph of a freak potato to The Spinoff creative director Toby Morris, Morris told The Spinoff: “Wow that potato bears a striking resemblance to a bird.”
3. Potato grenade, 2022
The most recent of the Aotearoa novelty potato stories is one of the best. “Trench fries,” quipped Stuff. “Grenade found on conveyor belt at hot chips factory.” A night shift worker at a South Auckland Mr Chips factory noticed that among the Matamata potatoes bound for the chipping conveyor belt was one that looked a lot like a hand grenade. This was no freak potato, however. It was an actual hand grenade. And so it was that the bomb squad was called to the chips factory.
The potato-impersonating grenade was later confirmed to be a training version of a “Mills bomb”, probably used in the 1940s by the home guard. The Mr Chips operations manager told Stuff he had taken a photo of the grenade and laminated posters for staff. He said: “It made for a more interesting night than we normally have.”
2. Freak potato, 1933
It’s not even all that freaky a potato, but the ornamentation adds such character, such charm, such menace. This is the best and truest FP, the kind of FP you want to spend time with, even in the knowledge that it might ritually disembowel you as you sleep. Thank you West Coast resident. Thank you Christchurch Star.
1. Dug the potato, 2021
Unless you’ve been buried deep in moist and fertile soil for the last few years you know this, the greatest novelty potato story in the history of our nation, the 7.9kg planet extracted from a backyard in Ngāhinapōuri. Astonished, immobilised, the world stared as one at the potato called Dug, like Camilla did in Feilding at her humongous helter skelter on a stick. We gasped at this starchy feline facsimile of Rodin’s Le Penseur, cooed at the sight of it getting towed around in a little cart, cheered at its presumptive status as the world’s biggest potato.
You’ll know, too, how that big potato title was cruelly torn from Dug and Dug’s parents, Colin and Donna. In March of this year the Guinness World Records’ buzz-evisceration department announced that so-called scientists had declared Dug to be a “a type of gourd”, rather than a potato.
They say they studied Dug’s “DNA”, whatever that is. We say: this is just like the time the Welsh tried to claim some tarmac lump in Gwynedd was steeper than Dunedin’s mighty Baldwin Street. In time that travesty was reversed, and so it will be, we predict, with Dug. After all, if Dug is not a potato, how could Dug top a list of New Zealand’s greatest novelty potato stories?