I was staring at a four-ton Idaho potato. The large spud sat on a tractor trailer parked near Mooyah Burgers in Hoover, Alabama. It was an overcast day. The potato was roughly the size of the Jefferson Memorial.
Beside me was a boy named Lonnie who was taking a picture of this titanic tuber with his phone. Lonnie was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and a cowboy hat. He was maybe 9 years old.
He wore thick plastic eyeglasses that reminded me of drugstore glasses from the early ‘60s. He kept pushing his glasses upward on his nose, spouting off random facts about the world-famous potato.
“It’s over thirteen feet high,” said Lonnie.
“Really?” I said.
“And ten feet wide.”
“The truck is seventy-two feet long.”
“How about that.”
Lonnie also informed me that this potato would be capable of making 20,217 servings of mashed potatoes, or around 3 million potato chips. It would take two years to bake.
“I wonder how many French fries it would make,” I said to Lonnie.
Lonnie pressed his glasses upward and fell silent. He blinked a few times.
I had stumped the whiz-kid.
His grandmother was behind him, admiring the prodigious potato. She was wearing a portable oxygen tank, seated on her bumper, eating an Almond Joy. Her hair was blazing white, her skin was parchment.
“We need to hurry, Lonnie,” she said. “You said this wouldn’t take long.”
“French fries…” Lonnie whispered privately, thumb-typing something on his phone. “How many French fries…”
The behemoth potato is currently on its tenth cross-country tour. Last week, the potato visited Hot Springs, Baton Rouge, and Mobile. And as soon as the potato left us, it would be visiting the Piggly Wiggly in Sneads, Florida. After that: Texas, Kentucky, Virginia, D.C., the Mid-Atlantic, and the Eastern Seaboard. This potato gets around.
Since its creation in 2012, the meteoric spud has covered over 100,000 American miles, visited every state in the Lower Forty-Eight, and has helped countless kids like Lonnie experience the unbridled wonder of tuber root vegetables.
The potato isn’t real, of course. It’s made of an iron frame and fiberglass shell. The thing took a full year to design and construct, and was was built by Chris and Sharolyn Schofield of Weiser, Idaho. The potato was made to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Idaho Potato Commision, a state agency which fights for truth, justice, and the Idahoan way.
“One-point-four million French fries,” Lonnie suddenly blurts out with a smile.
“Huh?” I said.
“The potato would make one-point-four million fries,” he said.
The little cowpoke showed me his phone to prove it. Then Lonnie adds that he loves potatoes and eats mashed potatoes every night for supper.
“Every night?” I said.
He nodded. “Every night.”
I figured the kid was exaggerating, but his grandmother certified that, yes, Lonnie eats potatoes every night.
“It’s true,” said the old woman. “I make mashed potatoes for every dinner. He don’t want nothing else with his chicken.”
I asked whether she prepares these potatoes fresh, or if she uses instant potato flakes. The old woman furrowed her brow as though I had just played the national anthem on my armpit.
“Fresh,” she said.
We made room for more potato visitors bearing iPhones, posing for selfies, and Granny and I watched as Lonnie wowed them all with his potato factoids.
Granny told me she has been raising Lonnie since he was a 1-year-old, when his mother died. She doesn’t say how his mother died, and it’s none of my business. But I get the impression through Granny’s comments that the boy’s mother met her end through hard living.
The old woman also tells me that she has raised six kids in her life. Lonnie will make seven.
“You’ve had a busy life,” I said.
She laughed. “You don’t know the half of it.”
Meanwhile, we watched America’s shortest cowboy tell a few roadside visitors about the formidable potato, he was wearing the same happy face often associated with powerball jackpots. He was in his element.
“He’s a smart kid,” Granny said. “He’s good with numbers, he can read grown-up books, he’s going places.”
And I had the feeling that I wasn’t looking at an ordinary elderly woman, but a survivor. There is a difference. And when she told me about her lung condition, I knew I was right.
After our brief exchange, she stood onto wobbly legs, using a four-pronged cane for support. This signaled to Lonnie that his time here was finished.
Lonnie ran to his grandmother, and the old woman gave him an Oscar-winning hug. I saw her eyes close beneath their embrace. I saw them pile into their beat up Ford Focus. I heard the engine cough itself to life, and watched them drive away, leaving me in shadow of the world’s largest potato.
The whole time I was thinking about what it means to be so incredibly loved that an old woman would put her entire life on hold. And I was wishing that all people on earth had a grandmother to love them so thoroughly.
So anyway, I know what one lucky kid is having for dinner tonight.