That’s what happened on Saturday, Sept. 24 when potato farmers, business owners, mechanics, welders, engineers, trucker, as well as school, college and Job Corps students, civic groups members and even some members of the U.S. military joined forces to cook up a huge batch of potatoes au gratin.
Measuring in at 15,000 pounds, the huge au gratin dish easily broke an 8,400-pound au gratin Guinness World Record set in Europe just last year.
Scores of volunteers stir more than 15,000 pounds of potatoes as they join together in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest dish of potatoes au gratin. Organizer Karin Springer said she was confident that they had indeed succeeded in doing that. The volunteers started at 9 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m., when the first serving was dished out. The pan, which was 80 feet long, was heated by 40 crab cookers using 100 gallons of propane an hour. Fred Bowdy of Handy's Heating estimated that they were burning about 4 million BTUs an hour. The event was organized as part of the Downtown Mount Vernon (Washington state) Association's yearlong "Spirit of the Spud,"with events designed to celebrate the local potato industry. The potatoes were donated by 10 farmers who are members of the Skagit Red Potato Growers Association in Skagit County, Washington
For the potato growers, the event was a wonderful way to celebrate local agriculture.
"It’s a really cool concept — taking local food and using it to set a world record,” said Darrin Morrison, chairman of the Washington State Potato Commission. “People from all over the world will learn more about Skagit Valley’s rich diversity of agriculture.”
Fourth-generation potato grower Konnie McKutchin of Knutzen Farms, agreed. “It’s an absolutely incredible way to celebrate our farms. I don’t think many people realize how many crops are grown here in the valley.”
She had a lot of praise for the excellent job the Mount Vernon Downtown Association had done promoting the event. “It took a lot of people working behind the scenes,” she said.
“This is fun,” said Navy man Jeffrey Lara as he used a long wooden paddle to help stir the sliced red potatoes as they cooked on a 80-foot stainless steel pan that had been welded together for the event.
Sweating profusely, he said that the heat of the 40 crab cookers underneath the pan, which were putting out about 4 million btus an hour, plus the steam coming up from the potatoes and the unseasonably hot weather were making this a challenging culinary endeavor indeed. There was definitely a lot of “heat in the kitchen.”
About an hour later, Lara and Navy buddy Steve Austin were happy to cool down for a few minutes when they went to the cooler to check on the 200 gallons of cream that would be added to the potatoes once they cooked a bit more. “This is a blast,” said Austin, who hails from Florida. “It’s something different to do and gives us a chance to meet new people and have a great Saturday off the base.”
They had arrived at 8:30 a.m. to help put the potatoes into the pan. And they were still hard at work at 4 p.m., when the first plates of the au gratin were dished up to eager diners, who lined up near the canopy-covered cooking pan.
“This is unreal,” said Dick Wiltse, who was wearing a black Harley Davidson T-shirt. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen cooked. It’s so cool to see all of these people coming together to do this.”
He had some thoughts to share on the connection between Harleys and potatoes. “If you eat potatoes, you ride a Harley,” he said, quickly adding that “Real men eat potatoes.”
Skagit County Dairy Ambassador Abby Lohman was pleased to see agriculture in the spotlight. “It shows how important and how valuable agriculture is to the community,” she said. “It’s really great we’re here downtown to show that. A lot of people forget that we’re an ag community.”
The Skagit County Dairy Women and Darigold were among those who helped pay for or donated dairy products for the au gratin — about 200 gallons of cream and 400 pounds of cheese.
Besides the more than 15,000 pounds of potatoes, which were donated by local growers, and the cream and the cheese, the recipe also called for 100 pounds of onions, 50 pounds of garlic, 7 pounds of salt, and 2 1/2 pounds of pepper. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” said retired chef Stuarto Glasser, who hosts “Kitchen Cuisine” on KSVR public radio. “It was kind of like rowing a huge boat.”
Like other volunteers, he said it was amazing to see complete strangers come together as a team. “Everyone was doing everything possible to help each other,” he said. Glasser was the chef who verified the results for the Guinness World Record.
As she sat on the wooden walkway just above the river, 9-year-old Grace Schaumock-Cowan from nearby Bellingham proclaimed the au gratin “very good, cheesy and creamy.” Her mother, Jennifer Cowan, said they had come to the event because Grace likes reading about Guinness world records.
Britta Eschete had similar reasons for volunteering. As she took a break from paddling the potatoes around on the pan, she said she was there to share the experience of being part of a record-making attempt “in such a unique community way.” “There’s quite a learning curve when you’re dealing with such a huge batch of potatoes,” she said. “There were many steps leading up to this.”
“My compliments to the chef,” said Don Wick, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Skagit County, as he dined on a dish of the au gratin potatoes. “This is an amazing accomplishment.”
Organizer of the event, Karin Springer, owner of the Trumpeter Public House restaurant in downtown Mount Vernon, was certainly one of the spark plugs. Overseeing everything from the temperature of the potatoes to when to add the cream, cheese, onions, garlic, salt and pepper, she admitted that she hadn’t yet had time to comb her hair. That was at noon. By 4 p.m., nothing had changed. She still hadn’t time to run a comb through her hair. But she was there with a large smile, dishing out the au gratin once it was ready.
“Skagit Valley has an amazing amount of potatoes,” she said, referring to the approximately 10,000 acres planted in spuds. “It’s our largest crop, and I wanted people to know that.”
On Sunday, the day after the festivities, Springer said she felt confident the au gratin dish had qualified as a Guinness World Record. Besides making a larger batch of potatoes au gratin than the previous record holder, it was also necessary to serve all of the food. Springer said that was accomplished by donating what was left to homeless shelters, food banks, and even the local jail.
“We did it,” she said. “Everything came together.”