Friday, January 17, 2014

Pioneer potatoes make international spotlight

Secretary of state gives away giant spuds at Paris peace conference

Express Staff Writer

In this photo from 2004, John Kerry stands at the Warm Springs base of Bald Mountain after a day of spring skiing. Express file photo

During talks in Paris ahead of a U.N. peace conference, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Pavlov two giant potatoes from Idaho as a gift. The somewhat odd transaction turned into an international news story. Unbeknownst to Pioneer Saloon manager and co-owner Alyson Witmer at the time of the purchase, those potatoes came from her Ketchum restaurant.

“Someone came in and bought a box of uncooked potatoes right out of our kitchen and we didn’t make anything of it at the time,” Witmer said. “We later got a call from Taylor Rogers of CBS News, who said that there was a breaking news story about Kerry giving Idaho potatoes in Paris.”

Witmer noted that Rogers stayed in Ketchum over the holidays, and ate at the Pioneer, aware of its reputation for serving very large potatoes. He then asked if the potatoes could have come from the Pioneer, prompting the staff to look back through their purchase records, and saw the name Heinz, the last name of Kerry’s wife, Teresa.

 “We went back through our records and saw that the Heinz family purchased the potatoes from the Pioneer,” she said. “They were paid for by a check from the Heinz account. We had no idea what the purchase was going to be for.”

Kerry and Heinz own a home north of Ketchum and are regular customers at the Pioneer, according to Witmer. Kerry was in the Wood River Valley in late December.

Kerry’s gift of potatoes was not given without reason. NBC News reported that Lavrov had mentioned his interest in Idaho potatoes. Witmer said the restaurant orders all of its potatoes from farmers within the state, and the ones Kerry gave away were from Blackfoot.

She said the restaurant’s large potatoes usually weigh around 2 pounds.

Witmer said she was very excited when she learned that the potatoes Kerry gave as a gift came from Idaho.

“It was really fun to hear,” she said. “So many people know the Pioneer Saloon, and we’re really fortunate that we have a reputation that expands beyond the community. It was really neat to think that there’s this connection halfway across the globe, taking what we do every day and seeing those same potatoes being passed over the table—it was really cool.

“I’d like to think this is good press for the Idaho Potato Council. It’s one of those many things that can help put Ketchum on the map. If anything, I hope it illuminates the idea that Idaho is a draw to so many international people.”

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