I requested a small case of sweet potatoes from Lancaster Farms because I am a huge fan of Sweet Potato Pecan pie. Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen and K-Paul’s Restaurant made this dessert quite famous in the early 80’s. No one else in the bakery seems particularly aware of nor interested in this flavor combination so I will extol its virtue to Sibling Baker from Seattle who is also a fan. Sweet Potato pie on its own is generally too sweet for my liking but it does have somewhat of a modest following in this locale. Fortunately, there are as many recipes to choose from and doctor up as there are accessories to bedazzle my favorite spud, Mr. Potato Head. I began to pore over recipes this week for pies boasting yams but became preoccupied with memories of the creative play toy.
I was rather smitten with Mr. Potato Head, which says an awful lot about the power of 1960s television advertising. (Mrs. Potato Head was not on my radar until the introduction of Toy Story.) Mr. Potato Head was featured on a commercial that aired repeatedly in the afternoons, drowned out by Jessie’s Sunbeam mixer as she whipped together dessert ingredients while simultaneously preparing dinner. Perched on a wooden kitchen chair, my eyes glued to the portable black and white television set, Wonderama and cartoons played on WNEW’s Channel 5. Jessie wasn’t sold on the idea of the Hasbro toy, and when I finally received a gift of the highly coveted Mr. Potato Head kit, she was less than happy to hand over a spud. Prior to 1964, you needed a genuine vegetable to accessorize; I don’t believe the plastic potato body became imperative until kids sustained injuries, jabbing the sharp little plastic pieces into both root vegetables and themselves. Jessie begrudgingly relinquished a perfectly fine potato that she assured me would sprout and lose it’s pep soon enough. She was right. I kept my Mr. Potato Head in a small Jumping Jacks shoebox with just enough room for him to stretch out comfortably alongside the plastic accessories. Jessie knew a thing or two about potatoes and it was just a matter of time before Mr. Potato Head was starting to look like something out of Creature Features. I salvaged the spud’s expressive facial elements plus his appendages, eyeglasses and jaunty hats then gave the starchy vegetable a proper shoebox burial. I moved on to Mattel’s Beanie and Cecil Disguise Kit which boasted a longer shelf life.
Mr. Potato Head would return to haunt me in later years when I least expected it. While on the road in late fall of 1981, I received a letter from the Idaho Potato Commission, the official home of the Idaho spud. They were interested in launching a new ad campaign featuring my boss as spokesperson. My immediate reaction was to avoid broaching the subject with His Majesty who had just recently (and rather vocally) rebuffed a gift from the Cabbage Patch people who had created his likeness in 'hand-stitched soft sculpture art.' The Potato Commission had included in their letter of introduction a proposed storyboard for the commercial. I had to admit, the likeness of my boss side by side with a potato, was uncanny. It was crystal clear to me what his response would be without showing him the paperwork. I made a very casual, passing reference to the correspondence ultimately deciding to politely decline the potato project. I filed the letter under “Miscellaneous Requests,” directly behind the xeroxed copy of my thank-you note to the Cabbage Patch folks.
In December of the same year, the tour was booked for an extended stay in Ft. Lauderdale. Nearly as exciting as sightings of alligators in the Sunrise Theatre parking lot were the holiday parties. We consumed a good bit of Key Lime pie, but not a single slice of Sweet Potato. Hanukkah intertwined with Christmas and gifts were exchanged against a backdrop of palm trees and Early Bird Specials. I hosted a small ‘Ring in the New Year’ soiree at the Mediterranean-inspired avocado green house I was renting. The General Manager, who was privy to most drama in Siam, both onstage and off, joined us. Insisting I unwrap his gift before he flew back to New York, he handed me a rectangular box, outfitted in the merriest and happiest of holiday gift wrap. As I carefully tore away the paper, there was no mistaking the familiar face, boasting oversized features, sporting a sizable mustache and outfitted in a shiny black hat. He grinned from behind the cellophane window of the Hasbro box, looking barely a day older than he had in 1964 when he was made out of potato, not plastic.