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What is it with Obama and potatoes?

According to the political humor Web site Apoliticus, hordes of Obama supporters descended upon an Idaho farm shortly before the election to gaze upon a potato resembling the then-candidate. “A minor scuffle broke out,” the site reports, “as Obama supporters fought to hold the celebrity spud.” No reference is cited for the report, leading the skeptical (er, rational?) reader to conclude that, in this case, fiction is stranger than truth.

Still, the story is emblematic of a strange connection between the president-elect and tubers.

  • Back in May, a sweet potato that supposedly resembled Obama sold for $8.49 on eBay.
  • For Thanksgiving, the Huffington Post offered a recipe for Obama Sweet Potato Pie. What makes it an Obama pie? Not the recipe, which does not depart significantly from a zillion other sweet potato pie recipes. This pie’s claim to fame is that it was served on the night of the presidential election. (Seems to have worked. Academicians are working feverishly to replace the discredited Bradley Effect with The Magic Tuber Pie Effect.)
  • The political commentary Web site, TheRoot.com, reports that D.C.’s venerable Henry’s Soul Café (1704 U Street NW) is busily preparing for the day it serves the incoming president a slice of its fabled sweet potato pie. “It’s almost inevitable,” the café’s president, Jermaine Smith, told writer Teresa Wiltz, of Obama ordering some of Henry’s pie.

Maybe this whole thing goes back to Obama’s stated passion for sweet potato pie. “Well you know I love sweet potato pie,” Obama told an audience in Germantown, outside Philadelphia. “I know sweet potato pie.”

But the tuber fascination is not limited to sweet potatoes. A Google image search of “Obama potatoes” turns up a made-up Obama likeness in what appears to be a russet potato (ala Jesus in a tortilla) and the comparison of Obama’s visage to that of Mr. Potato Head, which is your basic spud.

I like to stay current on things political and foodie, but I confess I was not aware of the Obama-potato trend until after returning from a recently exploratory “red gravy” trip (another story) to Philadelphia.

While shopping at the open-air produce stalls along the Ninth Street Italian Market in South Philly, I happened upon a pile of potatoes, which were advertised with a square of cardboard that read: “Obama potatoes.” I picked one up, a russet, examined it, and, finding no discernible relationship between the tuber and the newly elected president, asked the vendor, “What makes these Obama potatoes?”

The vendor, a tall, hefty black man who was on his cell phone at the time, acknowledged my query with a huge smile. Somehow, his expression said it all: There is nothing that makes these Obama potatoes.

It was, I surmised, just a way for the guy to celebrate Obama’s victory.

As I reached into the piles and selected a few russets, a couple of long whites, and several sweet potatoes, each type bearing the marker-scrawled sobriquet “Obama,” we bantered good-naturedly. Well, I bantered. He seemed obligated to complete his call. But he multi-tasked, listening to his caller while making faces to me that indicated he appreciated what I was saying.

“You sayin’ these are miracle potatoes?” I asked at one point.

He shook his head forcefully and let go a big, silent laugh. He understood my meaning: These “Obama potatoes,” with their inference of specialness, expressed his belief that there was something wondrous, providential, magical even, in the unlikely triumph of a black man with a decidedly unpresidential name (Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Clinton, Bush; Obama?), not to mention the middle name of a sworn enemy, getting elected president of the United States.

As I pulled money out of my pocket, the vendor waved his right hand from side to side. I looked at him quizzically. “No,” he mouthed, still waving, and smiled anew.

I pushed the money back down into my pocket, mouthed thank you, and waved good-bye.

Ambling through the crowd, carrying my bag of spuds, I thought about Obama, potatoes, and what one has to do with the other. I didn’t have a clue. All I knew was that, solely because of the spirit in the post-election air, I received a free gift from a total stranger. He was a small businessman giving away—-in tough times, no less—-some of his merchandise, his way of sharing his glee.

And that, it seemed to me, is no small potatoes.

Image by Flickr user eob.