No need for me and my fellow Idahoans to sit at home and watch the New Yorkers having all the fun… now Boise has a locally grown New Year’s Eve tradition: an evening of magic shows, live music, street food, and general merrymaking, capped off by dropping a giant styrofoam potato off a tall building.
This is the kind of local tradition a community can rally around. Free, appealing to all ages, and wacky enough to capture the imagination, it generates a certain excitement and pride.
The potato (Solanum tuberosum), which has been grown in Idaho since 1837, has played a key role in the state’s history, economy, and cuisine. Idaho business maven J.R. Simplot oversaw development of the first frozen potato processing and delivery method, and created an entire industry around frozen French fries for restaurants and for home baking. The iconic Idaho Spud Bars, candy bars which contain no potato whatsoever, were created by a local candy maker in 1918 and are still being sold today. 2013 Idaho State Fair offerings included an oblong of chocolate-coated ice cream with whipped cream inside, to simulate a fully loaded baked potato. Many a license plate in our fair state sports the “Famous Potatoes” slogan.
Potatoes hail from the Andes Mountains, and they adapt well to Idaho’s climate and altitude. The combination of hot days, cool nights, and mineral-rich volcanic soil produce a starchy, firm-fleshed tuber (provided the plants get consistent moisture through irrigation) that lends itself to easier peeling and mashing. The most commonly grown Idaho potato is the Russet Burbank; its “netted” surface isn’t as aesthetically appealing as the smooth skin of other varieties, but brings increased resistance to scab and other diseases.
As the evening of December 31 progressed, a crowd gathered in The Grove, a pedestrian-only open-air paved square in the center of downtown Boise. Bands played. Dancers brandished fiery torches. Nearby restaurants and bars filled to capacity with people eating, drinking, laughing, and wearing those silly hats.
Near midnight, thousands of people streamed into the open spaces and turned their gazes skyward for the grand finale. The giant potato was lowered by crane from the top of the US Bank Plaza with flashing lights, cheers, and tooting of horns.
And thus a tradition is born. (For the full sensory experience, watch the video.)
Years from now, you may be cheering as your own locally appropriate giant vegetable drops from your town’s tallest building.
Happy New Year to all! May your gardens thrive, or at least bring you joy.
Photography note: Photographer John Bernasconi seeks meaningful connections with his subjects whether he’s shooting portraits or landscapes, but he has never before connected with a giant potato.