Potato Paradise

By Liz Campbell

Forget the seafood, I’m here for the potatoes! Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) may be known for the bounty of its Atlantic waters, but apparently this didn’t impress Stompin’ Tom Connors.

The folk singer wrote more than 300 songs, all about his native Canada, songs that have become part of this country’s cultural landscape. But when it came to the province in which he spent much of his childhood, the Canadian icon eschewed lobster for “Bud the Spud from the bright red mud” – the humble potato.

Maybe Stompin’ Tom had it right. Undoubtedly the oysters in P.E.I. are particularly tasty – so smooth and briny that a drop of lemon juice is all that’s needed. And of course, the lobsters here, coming from the cold depths of the North Atlantic, are uniquely sweet and meaty. But bring on those spuds!

This tiny island grows some of the best potatoes in the world. First introduced in 1758 by the British, P.E.I.’s rich red soil proved ideal. Hardy Scots and Irish settlers soon began cultivating the crop they knew so well from their homelands, and they even put that seafood bounty to use. Mussel mud, rich in lime from oyster and mussel shells, was the first fertilizer used.

All this I learned at the Potato Museum in O’Leary, P.E.I. Here we saw a model of the world’s biggest potato – 8.275 kg of spudsy goodness, dug up back in 1795 in England. And we learned about the machinery developed to bring in those potatoes. But after an afternoon here, I confess to wondering why anyone would grow this peculiarly pest-ridden plant; the museum’s display of miniature coffins, each displaying a particular potato disease, leaves one marveling that a crop ever makes it to harvest.

Even if potato history leaves you cold, there’s another enticement for visiting this museum. The restaurant offers a uniquely spud-centric menu – chili fries, poutine, baked potatoes stuffed with lobster or pulled pork, even potato skins. And for dessert – mashed potato fudge, of course!

Replete with spuds, our next stop has to be Skinner’s Pond to learn about the man who sang about them. This tiny hamlet is home to the brand new Stompin’ Tom Centre. It incorporates the small one-room school which he attended, as well as a museum and a magnificent new theatre featuring the premiere of the centre’s dinner theatre production of My Island Home: A Stompin’ Tom Story.

I’m surprised at just how prolifi c this songwriter was. He released four dozen albums, with total sales of nearly four million copies. While his exuberant music celebrated life across Canada, many songs are mini lessons in Canadian history: the infamous Black Donnelly family; Robert Lyon, who died in the last duel in Canada; the building of the Algoma Central Railway; French Canadian logging legend, Big Joe Mufferaw; and more. And he immortalized disasters like the sinking of the Marc Guylaine and the Hollinger mines fires.

I want to return here for one of the Monday night Kitchen Parties, their take on the traditional Scottish Ceilidh, a P.E.I. tradition. It’s not Monday, but Kirk Bernard has his guitar and we all join in to sing Sudbury Saturday Night, and of course, Bud the Spud. Bernard is one of the musicians who perform here regularly.

You don’t have to go far to find music in P.E.I. The blend of Celtic and Acadian French roots here means that music is ubiquitous. In fact, the very first settlers were French. They began to arrive on the island they called Île Saint-Jean in 1720 and named their community Port-la-Joye. Sadly, most were forced out during the Acadian clearances. Their story is marked at the national park at Port-La-Joye, where you’ll find plenty of walking trails. Today, a lively Acadian culture is celebrated with food, festivals and fun sprinkled with lots of music.

No trip to P.E.I. is complete without a visit to Green Gables, the house that inspired L.M. Montgomery’s novel. The only passion rival to potatoes here is Anne of Green Gables. It’s not unusual to see visitors walking around dressed as Anne, often complete with wig.

At Gateway Village in pretty Bordon-Carlton, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to don the dress and wig as well. But to my amazement, I discovered that even the men from one bus tour of Japanese fans were happy to pose in costume! But as I sat there, clutching my flowers and bag, it occurred to me that perhaps I should be holding a bag of potatoes instead. Did Anne like spuds?