BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
BOISE, Idaho - After a lifetime of longing, at last I am here. Tater Town, USA. Basketball has brought me to the capital of potato country, and I am forever in its debt.
How do I love the humble spud? Let me count the ways: baked, scallopped, mashed, au gratin, lyonnaise, french fries, hash browns, potato soup, potato skins, potato pancakes, potato chips. My ancestors came to this country because of a potato famine, and I can't get enough of them, either.
Some of the players assigned to this NCAA Regional site expressed dismay when the tournament bracket was first revealed. We can only attribute this to their untrained taste buds. For the Idaho Russet is to good eating what the Beach Boys are to Good Vibrations.
There is no substitute, Pat Kole said, though others have tried. The Idaho potato is the envy of the world.
''There's a higher solid content (as opposed to water), which leads to a lighter, fluffier texture of the potato,'' Kole said Tuesday afternoon. ''Because of the growing conditions here, the volcanic soil, you get a better potato taste.''
Don't accept imitations
Kole is vice president of the Idaho Potato Commission, specializing in legal and governmental affairs. A big part of his job is to protect the reputation of Idaho potatoes against counterfeit produce produced elsewhere. To that end, the Idaho Potato Commission has developed mineral tests to help identify the origin of suspicious potatoes.
Last November, a Chicago company was fined $2 million for packaging imitation Idahos as the real thing. In Kole's mind, this was akin to someone selling knock-off tubes of Crest toothpaste.
''Right now, our research shows that 82 percent of all American consumers recognize and are influenced in their buying decisions by Idaho potatoes,'' Kole said. ''Much like Procter & Gamble, it's important that people get the genuine article.''
It's important to Idaho, certainly. The state has a population of about 1 million, and roughly 400,000 acres of potatoes - one for every 2ï people. The state produces about 30 percent of the U.S. potato crop, and between 20 and 30 different types of taters are grown for commercial use. Idaho license plates bear the slogan, ''Famous potatoes.'' Beyond its borders, the state is not too famous for anything else.
''I've never been there and I've been everywhere else in this country, I guess,'' Temple coach John Chaney said after the NCAA bracket was announced, ''All I know is I'll probably see Idaho on a sack of potatoes.''
Sample these spuds
This is Chaney's chance to learn more. Too often, college teams crisscross the country and see nothing but airports, hotels and arenas. The players are purportedly unpaid, supposedly students, and yet are expected to behave as if they are on a narrowly focused business trip instead of a journey of discovery.
It took me 43 years to get to Boise. I may never make it back. While I'm here, I will live for the moment and chow down on the chief crop. ''It's always interesting when people first come here,'' said Don Odiorne, also of the Potato Commission. ''When I told my family I was moving to Idaho, my mom said, 'Where is that?' She was a lawyer, fairly well-educated, and she had to get out the map.''
Boise is familiar to some UC fans because the Bearcats football team played in the Humanitarian Bowl here last year. But it is not the most convenient stop on the circuit. Paul Keels, UC's radio voice, said his return ticket to Cincinnati requires that he change planes twice.
Still, it is indisputably worth the trip. What Forrest Gump's friend Bubba was to shrimp recipes, Boise's David Root is to spuds. The Desert Sage restaurant chef has created the ''Idaho Potato Sampler'' includes ancho chile potatoes, saffron potatoes, Vermont white cheddar cheese potatoes, angel-hair sized string potatoes, yams and blue potato chips.
It sounds scrumptious. How it tastes I will find out as soon as this column is complete. Mr. Potato Head has come to the right place.