Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Another Day, Another Small Potatoes Museum

June 21, 2010

Fredericton, New Brunswick to Perse, Quebec

Just in case yesterday's main event, the Sardine Museum, was not to your taste, today we offer a food museum we are sure you will enjoy—the Covered Bridge Potato Chip Factory Tour and Museum, in Hartland, home of the world's longest covered bridge (more on that later).

The Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company is owned by two generations of the Albright family, who grow 500 acres of potatoes on their farm nearby. Their factory makes kettle cooked potato chips in sixty pound batches, and we could look through big windows to view the factory floor, seeing every step of making a batch of chips, from trimming the potatoes by hand and feeding them into the slicing machine hopper, to seeing the thin slices dump into the big oil vat and be fried for six minutes, to their trip on an assembly line where inspectors pulled out the bad ones, to the place where they are blown into a bag with nitrogen (to extend shelf life and keep the chips from being crushed in transit) and sealed, then packed into cases to ship out.

We learned that four pounds of potatoes translates to one pound of potato chips, so we figured out that they make fifteen pounds of potato chips every six minutes, or 150 pounds of chips and hour. For perspective, the McCain Foods plant just up the road in Grand Falls turns out ten tons of fries per hour, so Covered Bridge is clearly small potatoes.

The Museum was full of interesting potato facts, beginning with a little potato history. Potatoes were first cultivated by Incas in Peru. They were introduced in Europe by the Conquistadors in the 1500s, but most Europeans would not eat them because they were not mentioned in the Bible, and there were rumors that they caused disease. Potatoes slowly gained favor in Europe when Marie Antoinette wore potato blossoms in her hair, making them fine for the French; and people in England experiencing food shortages during the Revolutionary War, ate potatoes out of desperation, and decided they liked them after all. Potatoes were not widely accepted in America until Thomas Jefferson served them at the White House. During the Alaska Gold Rush, miners were so desperate for Vitamin C that they traded gold for potatoes. The final important event in the history of the potato (so far) was the invention of Mr. Potato Head—the first toy advertised on television, in 1952.

You may blanch to learn that the average American eats 140 pounds of potatoes per year, making it the second most consumed food (milk is #1). Potato chips are the #1 snack in America (no surprise). They were invented in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, by George Crum, but the first potato chip factory was not built until 1895. Potato chips were unseasoned until the 1950s, when salt was added.

Which brings us to the most fun part of our tour. We were each given a bag full of hot potato chips fresh off the line, and walked out of the factory area to a long table with shakers of 31 different flavorings to sample on our chips. The flavors included lobster, chocolate (yum), vanilla espresso, pizza, pickle, orange, s'more . . . you get the idea. We each tried at least twenty different flavors, and my favorite was spaghetti, Dick's was loaded baked potato. We got to vote for our favorites and suggest any flavor ideas for them to add to the line-up. Call us unimaginative, but we could think of nothing appetizing that they hadn't already tried.

Our next stop was the Hartland Covered Bridge, built in 1901 and covered in 1922. At 1,282 feet it is the longest covered bridge in the world. Local legend has it that if you make a wish, close your eyes, cross your fingers and hold your breath for the full length of the bridge, your wish will come true. We also heard that in the early days of the bridge, the potato farmers trained their carriage horses to stop in the middle of the bridge so they could sneak a kiss in the dark.

Most of our roadside attractions this trip have been larger than life, but in New Carlisle, Quebec, we found their fire hydrants, painted as fanciful cartoon characters, were enchanting. We turned around several times for second looks at the 30 or so hydrants which line Route 132, the scenic coastal highway that passes through this little town of 1,430 people.

We are staying for two nights in the charming Manoir de Perce, in a room with a view of Perce Rock and Bonaventure Island, where we will travel tomorrow to see the world's largest gannet colony. Stay tuned for more about our adventures in this easternmost corner of Quebec.

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