Idaho and potatoes are interchangeable in many conversations, but the state of Idaho becoming famous for potatoes was not an accident. Learn more about the Famous Idaho Potato, the history of the potato, and all of our favorite potato-themed places to visit in Idaho.
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The potato is a root vegetable that grows in North and South America, with different species prevalent in other parts of the world. The current form of potato was first domesticated in South America more than 7,000 years ago. According to the National Academies Press, there are now more than 5,000 species of potato.
Potatoes have a long history of providing sustenance to cultures all over the world, and have been a subject of both feast and famine in many countries for thousands of years.
Idaho has become famous for their potatoes only in the last 100 years. Even though the “famous Idaho potato” seems like an obvious reality these days, Idaho became famous for their potatoes for a very calculated reason.
Potatoes are not native to Idaho and first made their way to the state with a missionary in the 1800s, according to the Idaho Potato Museum. Between 1882 and 1915, potato acres went from 2,000 to 33,000, and the reputation for Idaho Potatoes was growing.
J.R. Simplot led the growth of potatoes in Idaho
Although there were many early entrepreneurs whose goals were focused on Idaho potatoes, J.R. Simplot is the latest, and perhaps most successful potato company owner.
Simplot began shipping potatoes in the 1930s, and grew his empire throughout the next few decades.
According to the Idaho Potato Museum: “Simplot started a system with growers from whom he bought potatoes. He would buy certified seed and induce each one of his growers to purchase ten or more bags from him on credit. They were instructed to plant these ten bags of potatoes late in the season which caused the tubers to be small in size and relatively immature at harvest time. This lot of potatoes then, which had been grown from the certified seed and multiplied by one year’s growing, served as the seed for the next year’s crop. The practice, which Simplot developed, proved to be so superior to using ‘year out’ seed that it became almost a universal practice in the potato growing areas of Idaho.”
Besides the size of the potatoes, Simplot is also credited with one of the most life-changing innovations of the 20th century: dehydrated and frozen potatoes.
In 1967, Simplot and McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc made a deal that would allow Simplot to become the first frozen-french fry supplier to McDonald’s. According to a cool history by the Idaho Statesman, it wasn’t the first time McDonald’s served french fries — but it would be the first time they did not have to serve fresh potatoes.
Simplot still supplies McDonald’s with many of their french fries to this day.
Because of the quality and size of Idaho spuds used for bakers, as well as the freezing process, Idaho Potatoes have been famous for more than 50 years.
Famous Idaho Potatoes are available across the United States, and in many countries throughout the world. They are available at nationwide grocery chains like Albertson’s, Winco, and Walmart, as well as plenty of local brands. If you are eating french fries, really anywhere in the world, there is a chance you are eating an Idaho spud.
If you are not in Idaho but are craving an Idaho potato, the Idaho Potato Commission has put together a handy map on where to buy Idaho Potatoes.
If you are in Idaho, you can find Idaho potatoes pretty much anywhere you shop.
Yes, there really is a state commission on the potato in Idaho. The Idaho Potato Commission is tasked with promoting the Idaho potato throughout the world.
They are responsible for industry relations with farmers, retail, and foodservice; Idaho potato licensing (yes, really); the Idaho Potato Truck; and of course their mascot: Spuddy Buddy.
The Idaho Potato Bowl is a college playoff bowl with the Idaho Potato as their sponsor. So even though the bowl is not owned or managed by anyone in the Idaho Potato Commission, they are the main sponsor, which means plenty of potato products at the game.
The Idaho Potato Bowl is held each year at Albertson’s Stadium on the Boise State University campus. Spuddy Buddy always makes an appearance, and the sponsorship is meant to show the world what Idaho is most proud of: (of course) the Idaho potato.
The Idaho Potato Museum is located in Blackfoot, Idaho, about 3.5 hours from Boise (between Pocatello and Idaho Falls). The museum was established in 1988 in a former railroad depot building originally built in 1913. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The museum’s exhibits and murals will teach you the history of the potato in the Americas, including how it made its way to North America and eventually Idaho.
The museum will also show you the history of the potato as a major food staple at different times throughout the world, how farmers have learned to grow the modern potato, and you can even do fun potato experiments in the Potato Lab!
The Idaho Potato Museum has films based on Idaho potato history in the Potato Cinema and other artifacts from the story of the potato in Idaho, including a tour of potato farm machinery.
The Big Idaho Potato Truck is another project run by the Idaho Potato Commission. The truck was created in 2012 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Idaho Potato Commission, but they decided to keep it after its initial year.
The Idaho Potato Truck travels the country to promote the mission of the Idaho potato around the country.
Fun fact: I have had more than one person in my life ask me if the potato on the back of the Idaho Potato Truck is a real potato.
The Idaho Potato Hotel, although not affiliated with any potato organizations in Idaho, has become a loveable airbnb in Idaho. The “hotel” was created from a former Idaho Potato Truck potato, which means it has traveled to all 48 states in the country and has had quite a life!
The Idaho Potato Hotel is now living on an Idaho farm just south of Boise, and has been completely remodeled for a great night of sleep. The Idaho Potato Hotel does have electricity and a mini fridge — but it does not appear to have a TV and the bathroom is in another building.
If you plan to stay at the Idaho Potato Hotel, it is likely not for comfort, but rather to say you did it — and isn’t that why you would stay there in the first place?