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Down East spuds: harvesttime in Aroostook County. Maine's bounty baked, souffl'ed, stuffed, and put in pies

Maine's northern county, Aroostook, is so vast you could easily tuck Connecticut and Rhode Island inside its borders. Beautiful and remote, it's known simply as ``The County.'' Originally settled by the Acadians of Nova Scotia, Aroostook County once produced so many potatoes it was known as the Potato Empire. Today, however, it's fighting a tough battle with Oregon, Idaho, and other Western states for America's appetite for spuds.

Late August, September, and October are harvesting time in ``The County.'' Towns with names like Houlton, Caribou, Madawaska, and Presque Isle are now the centers of what's left of Maine's potato agriculture.

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Take a trip from Bangor to Presque Isle along I-95 at this time of year and you'll see truck after truck with towering mounds of potatoes on the way to the packing sheds. Some of the fields are still green with potato foliage that has not yet been ``killed off'' or defoliated. Other fields, immense triangles with rock and hay strewn around, have already been harvested.

This reporter hadn't been back to ``The County'' in almost 10 years. There are some changes one noticed this past fall, but not many. The farmhouses, the trailers, and the yards seemed to be better cared for than they were in the mid-'70s, as though there had been some good years mixed in with the bad. Late summer asters and zinnias added color to the front yards, and the trees were brilliant with their fluttering covering of crimson, orange, and yellow. What seemed to be missing were the old sod-sided potato barns, which had looked like mushrooms, their roofs seeming to rise directly out of the ground. Many of these, I am told, have been replaced by modern, climate-controlled potato houses.

Are the Maine potato farmers caught in the same vise as American farmers in the Middle West?

Yes, there have been foreclosures and bankruptcies here, too. And a lot of young people from this county who had hoped to farm up here have hung up their peaked caps and headed south. But not all, far from all, and if this year is a portent of things to come in Aroostook County, there might well be a turnaround for the potato farmers of Maine.

Ray Lavareau, a potato farmer with 1,000 acres in potatoes, feels that Maine potato farmers are better able to cope with adversity because they're so used to it, and they haven't been dependent on price supports. Third-generation farmer Richard Smith, a farmer and packer, is optimistic about this year's crop, but feels some new factor has to be introduced into the equation to keep Aroostook from a boom or bust economy. And 17-year-old Robert Thomas, a Future Farmer of America who started at seven years of age picking potatoes on his father's farm, dreams of having a farm of his own where he can grow other vegetables like broccoli along with the potatoes.

Perhaps broccoli is that new factor in the equation. Aroostook County now has almost 3,000 acres in broccoli, producing 2.5 percent of America's broccoli, and some experts have called Maine broccoli among the finest being produced in the United States today.

But potatoes are still the crop that fuels this vast county's farm economy, and those who love the taste of a new potato might want to make that long drive to Maine's remote and beautiful potato county. The roadside stands welcome you with mounds of 10-pound bags of new Maine potatoes, russets or whites, at $1.50 for a 10-pound bag. At this time of year, the potatoes are particularly delicious.

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Here are a few ways to cook them:

No meal at Antoine's, New Orleans's famous restaurant, is quite complete without an order of souffl'e potatoes. Antoine's is completely secretive about its Oysters Rockefeller, but a little more forthcoming with its Souffl'e Potato recipe. Souffl'e Potatoes

Take four good-size baking potatoes, peel, then slice lengthwise, about 1/16-inch thick. Soak in ice water for several hours. Drain and dry.

Have two pots of oil heating, one at 225 degrees F. and the other at 425 degrees F. Drop a few slices at a time into first pot (the cooler one). Fry 4 or 5 minutes, or until slices rise to the surface.

Transfer partly fried potatoes to second pot (the hotter one). Watch them puff up. Drain slices on paper towels, sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve immediately. Twice-Baked Stuffed Potatoes 4 large potatoes 6 tablespoons mayonnaise 1 cup cottage cheese 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, finely chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon dill weed 1 cup Cheddar cheese 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 4 teaspoons prepared mustard 2 medium-size tomatoes (sliced) Freshly ground pepper, Paprika and extra Cheddar

Bake potatoes. When cool enough to handle, slice in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh. Mash potatoes with mayonnaise and cottage cheese. Add everything except tomato, paprika, and the extra cheese. Mash some more.

Mound mixture into the potato skins. Place tomato slices over the stuffing. Sprinkle paprika, pepper, and extra cheese over tomato slices.

Put potatoes in pan and into 375-degree F. oven for about 35 minutes.

With a green salad, you have a meal. You can call it a ``meal in a peel.'' German Hot Potato Salad 6 to 8 potatoes (about 4 cups diced potatoes) 1/4 cup white wine vinegar 1/4 pound slab bacon, diced 1 large onion, chopped 1 teaspoon flour 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 1/2 cup onion bouillon

Boil potatoes in their jackets till tender. Drain, and peel while still warm. Slice and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and vinegar. Cover to keep warm.

Saut'e bacon till crisp, remove with slotted spoon, set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat. Add onion and cook till translucent. Stir in flour and mustard, bouillon and cook until thickened. Pour dressing over warm potatoes; sprinkle with bacon bits.

Cover again for 5 minutes to let potatoes absorb flavors. A Shaker Potato Pie 3 cups mashed potatoes 1 cup thick cream 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 cup cubed Cheddar cheese 1 tablespoon grated raw onion 1 cup buttered bread crumbs

Beat mashed potatoes with cream until very fluffy. Season. Put in buttered ovenproof baking dish. Push little pieces of cheese within the potatoes. Mix onions and buttered bread crumbs and cover mixture. Bake in 350-degree F. oven for about 20 minutes. And Then There's Vichyssoise 4 leeks, white parts sliced thin 1 medium onion, sliced thin 2 tablespoons butter 5 potatoes, peeled and sliced 1 quart chicken stock 1 tablespoon salt 2 cups milk 2 cups medium thick cream 1 cup heavy cream Finely chopped chives

Cook onions and leeks in butter until golden. Add potatoes, chicken stock, and salt. Boil for 40 minutes.

Rub liquid through a fine sieve. Return to fire and add milk and medium thick cream. Season to taste and bring to a boil. Cool and rub through sieve again.

When cold, add 1 cup heavy cream. Chill thoroughly and serve, sprinkled with chopped chives.

This is a favorite Maine way of fixing potatoes. Potato Scouse 6 or 8 slices salt pork 4 large onions, sliced 9 potatoes, peeled and sliced Salt and pepper

Fry salt pork in iron Dutch oven. Add onions and potatoes, salt, pepper. Just cover with water, stirring occasionally. Cook until potatoes and onions are done and scouse has thickened.

Note: Use as little water as possible, and no flour. Potatoes will thicken by themselves.

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