Here in Maine brutal levels of unemployment continue even as the Republicans now running the state prepare to dismantle government assistance programs for the poor. In this environment it was good to see Senator Susan Collins offer bold words about the government's obligations to the poorest citizens. Last week, brandishing a white potato like a hard little snowball she might hurl at Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, she called his department to task for discriminating against her favorite "vegetable" in food subsidies for impoverished children. "What," she asked, "do you have against the potato?"
Some background: if you are young (under six) and poor, the government (through a program called Women, Infants and Children, or WIC) will spend $39 a month so you don't starve. WIC vouchers can be used for staples like milk, eggs, cheese, and juice. After finally completing a rule-making process dating back to 2006, the Ag Department has now set aside $6 of that $39 for fresh fruits and vegetables. The white potato, Collins noted with annoyance, is the only vegetable not on the approved list.
The Collins-Vilsack debate illuminates competing ideas about the role of government, and offers a fresh perspective on what Collins referred to repeatedly as the "fresh white potato" (like something you might pluck off a tree and bite into). I canvassed local restaurants in search of the Maine potato, so that I might eat this nutritional marvel while pondering the senator's ideas. Local 188 was serving them in several preparations. Even better, they make a Collins cocktail with Cold River Gin — made from Maine potatoes. After drinking a few of these the senator's ideas started to make a lot of sense.
Vilsack claims the government shouldn't subsidize potatoes for poor children because poor people already eat potatoes without the government's encouragement. So?! Bankers already get rich — should the government stop finding ways to make them richer? Of course not. So why shouldn't the government encourage poor people to play their role more perfectly as well? Collins's view of government is like Plato's: don't promote equality, but rather help citizens embody the class into which they are born. Pushing this idea further, Collins romanticized child labor, wistfully recalling her first job digging potatoes "during school recess when I was very very young." Collins's hint that poor children should work for their vegetables like in the good old days seemed lost on Vilsack.
Taking a more practical approach Collins pointed out that a white potato has twice as much vitamin C as a head of iceberg lettuce. I did not know that. Comparisons to oranges were apparently unavailable. Still that statistic was reassuring during cold season, as we dug into a potato tortilla made with yam and fig. The great virtue of the potato, much like the virtue of a Maine senator, is its bland-neutrality. It provided a dignified base, which prevented the palate from being overwhelmed by the sweeter ingredients. In the gin the potato had happily receded into flavorlessness, allowing hints of juniper and fresh citrus to animate the drink. The gnocchi transfigured potato into soft little clouds coated in a rich vodka sauce. In their very lightness, however, these dumplings become transcendent only by overcoming their potato-ness.