Written by Gerry Warren, Slow Food USA Regional Governor for Washington & Alaska and the coordinator of the Makah Ozette Potato Presidium
In the 1980s an unknown fingerling potato was recognized as a staple in the diet of Pacific Coast Native Americans of the Makah Nation. The Makah occupy the region around Neah Bay, Washington, the most northwesterly point in the lower 48 states. According to tribal lore, the potato had been used by these people for about 200 years. The Makah had named it Ozette after one of their five villages located around Neah Bay. All potatoes originated in South America and it was thought that all potatoes now in the Americas were first taken to Europe by Spaniards before they came to North America. However, in 2004, phylogenetic analysis conducted at Washington State University provided evidence that this potato (Solanum Tu- berosum Group Tuberosum) had certainly been imported directly from South America. How did this happen?
After their conquests in South America, the Spanish began a mission to further establish their empire on the western shores of North America. In the spring of 1791, they established a fort at Neah Bay and, as was the custom, planted a garden that surely included potatoes they had brought directly from South America via Mexico. During the winter of 1791, the Spanish found the weather conditions in the harbor too severe to maintain their ships and they abandoned the fort. The Makah people, who were in need of a carbohydrate source, likely found volunteers of this rather weedy plant left in the garden of the abandoned fort. They quickly adopted the potato and became its stewards, growing it in their backyard gardens. Not until the late 1980s, nearly 200 years later, was the potato grown outside the Makah Nation. The Makah named the potato Ozette and we have named it Makah Ozette to honor their 200 years of stewardship. The firm flesh and creamy texture of this thin-skinned fingerling potato and its unique nutty, earthy flavor are appreciated by home cooks as well as chefs.
The Presidium was established by Slow Food Seattle in partnership with the Makah Nation, Full Circle Farm, Pure Potato (a laboratory and farm which develops and produces potato seed), the USDA Agricultural Research Station in Prosser, WA, and the Seattle chapter of Chefs Collaborative.