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American Magazine


Mr. Potato Head

By Mike Unger

Larry Engels filming unusual doings with potatoes in Minnesota

SOC professor Larry Engels filming the annual Potato Days festival, which includes mashed potato wrestling, in Barnesville, Minnesota (Photo courtesy of Larry Engels)

Baked or fried, mashed or grilled, scalloped or diced. Any way you slice it, potatoes are palate-pleasingly popular the world over.

“Who doesn’t like potatoes?” asks Larry Engel, a School of Communication professor and filmmaker who clearly does. His short documentary, Potato Heads: Keepers of the Crop, examines the history and importance of the world’s most famous tuber.

“By taking a look at the lowly potato you come away learning how important it is to developing countries now and in the future,” he says. “Potatoes are the third most important produce in the world behind wheat and rice.”

Engel’s film centers on two communities: Barnesville, Minnesota, home to the annual Potato Days festival featuring mashed potato wrestling, and an Andean community deep in the mountains of Peru.

“They both cherish the potato,” says Engel, who made the film with a grant from the Wallace Genetic Foundation. “The potato carries such cultural weight because it’s really a critical agricultural staple.”

In the movie Engel visits the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, which preserves more than 500 varieties of potato seeds, and explores a host of serious issues pertaining to the nature of the international food production system.

“The overall food production system is under greater and greater threat as we create more monoculture agriculture,” he says. “The current industrialization of our food and agriculture, plants and animals is not sustainable. Ultimately, we will need to make changes in how we treat the land, the water, and farming.

Potato Heads will be shown September 18 at the Corto e Fieno Film Festival, in Ameno, Italy. No word yet as to whether the festival will serve fries rather than popcorn at the screening.