PAT NEAL: Digging the Ozette potato

POTATOES MUST BE my favorite thing to dig, next to clams, but clam season is closed so I’m digging potatoes.

I know what you’re thinking, people are supposed to dig potatoes in the fall when the vines ripen and die down. But what if you’re too busy fishing? Then you dig potatoes in the winter.

That’s the best time to dig them in this country.

Spuds get soft if they are stored improperly, but if you keep them in the ground they stay hard as rocks.

You may lose a few to the mice, but that is a small price to pay. Some may freeze and rot, but for the most part, a light frost gives the tubers a sweet taste that is impossible to buy in a plastic bag.

There are many types of taters — red, white, blue and yellow — but my favorite is the Ozette potato, Solanum Tuberosum.

It isn’t the biggest tater in the patch, but it stays hard and fresh until spring, with a sweet creamy flavor the foodies tell us tastes vaguely like a chestnut. We’ll take their word for it.

All I know is the Ozette potato is a living piece of Olympic Peninsula history that goes back to May 29, 1791.

That’s when Salvador Fidalgo, captain of the Princessa, anchored in Neah Bay with some 70 seamen and 13 soldiers.

Fidalgo had been sent with instructions to monitor shipping in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and build shelters, an infirmary, storehouses and an oven to bake bread for the crews of visiting Spanish ships that were anticipated to reinforce their claims to the land.

Nunez Gaona is considered the first settlement by Europeans in the American Pacific Northwest. There were seven Peruvian Indians aboard the Princessa, so we might assume they brought the potatoes for vegetable gardens.

A member of the nightshade family, it is estimated that the potato has been cultivated in South America for 8,000 to 10,000 years. The Spanish conquistadores invaded South America looking for gold, but they also found the potato. The value of the humble potato has probably exceeded the wealth of precious metals since then.

That was the good old days when all you had to do to own land was to plant a cross, claim you owned it and you did!

The problem was Spain, England, Russia and the United States all claimed the same land that we now call home.

The Nootka Convention of 1790 allowed joint occupation by British and Spanish invaders in the vast area we call the Pacific Northwest. This was a diplomatic effort to avoid yet another of the wars in Europe that had devasted the continent.

Nunez Gaona was not a happy place. The anchorage was treacherous. There was no gold.

A Spanish First Mate was killed.

In a case of random retaliation, Capt. Fidalgo blew a canoe containing a Makah family out of the water. Two children survived.

Fidalgo realized his position was untenable. Nunez Gaona only lasted three months.

The potato stayed.

The Makah grew the potato instead of gathering camas. They traded garments of woven dog hair and bird feathers for Hudson Bay blankets, and the bow and arrow for firearms. It was part of the Manifest Destiny cultural grab bag that included alcohol, smallpox and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

For more than 200 years, the Makah kept the Ozette Potato for us to remember and enjoy today.

The Makah traditionally dipped their potatoes in whale or seal oil, but since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we’ll have to settle for the garlic butter.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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