A baked potato near and dear

If it's taste you want, reach for a moist and creamy Keuka Gold from Schuylkill County. You'll drop that Idaho spud like a hot . . .

Well, the way that Keith Masser sees it, the Idaho Potato Commission has about convinced people that Idaho is the only place to get your potatoes from, even though its Russet Burbanks - grown in irrigated, sandy soils - tend toward a dryness and don't have anywhere near the flavor of your basic Schuylkill County spud.

Masser is a seventh-generation potato farmer up in Sacramento, Pa., which is in northern Schuylkill County, "not California." I've called him up because it's a couple of days after my annual baked potato at the Farm Show in Harrisburg - which is to say a few weeks ago - and I'm curious whether it's being around all those draft horses and drafty halls at the largest indoor agricultural event in America that makes a potato seem better, or whether there's a reason that actually makes for a better-tasting potato.

Since it was Masser's potatoes (roughly 45,000 of them) that they were baking and copiously buttering and selling for $2.50 apiece at the Pennsylvania Cooperative Potato Growers booth this year, his answer was unsurprising: His spuds are grown in good upland soils, the red-shale silt-loam of the Higgins and Lykens Valleys that run for about 45 miles between Interstate 81 and the Susquehanna River. That minerally soil, he says, gives the potatoes the regional character and moistness that you'll be hard-pressed to find in Idaho's sand- or muck-soil-grown potatoes.

How do they taste better? They seem creamier, breaking up in tender curds, and richer, close to steamy mashed potatoes almost when you butter them up, and like a potato - or like a potato used to taste when a potato tasted like a potato.

It's funny to see how the lines string out at the baked potato stand. Nothing fancy about how to cook one: Stick it in a convection oven for an hour. Done. (Masser also markets a Blue Denim-brand shrink-wrapped potato that can be shoved in a microwave and be "done" in six minutes.)

It's funny because there's a french fry booth right next door, and while the fries are good and fresh, not frozen, the happy bakers are a rarer treat. You can step right up and get one, split and steaming, which makes them, I suppose, a fast food, but hardly a junk food.

The Farm Show baked potato packs emotional wallop. It's the punch-faced palooka from the Sunday supper table; meat loaf's main squeeze. Masser is thinking of reviving an old idea - marketing bags of his spuds next winter as Farm Show-brand potatoes. (His potatoes are in chain supermarkets across the state, but it's hard to tell which ones are Masser's: They aren't labeled.)

Of course, these aren't the old days. The McDonald's fry begat the Idaho juggernaut, and from 100,000 acres of potatoes in 1952, Pennsylvania's once second-ranked crop has plummeted to 17th at about 5,000 acres, most of them feeding the chip industry.

So, disease resistance in the buggy Mid-Atlantic is more important than ever. Older breeds such as Katahdin and Kennebec that you could still find a few years back are now boutique varieties. Masser's winter offerings are a newer breed, a yellow-fleshed, pest-resistant cross called the Keuka (Key-u-cah) Gold.

That resulted in a call-and-response sing-song at the Farm Show's baked potato booth: What kind of potatoes were these gorgeous, steamy big boys? "Keuka Gold." "Did you say Yukon Gold?" "No, Keuka Gold."

The bad news this year was that heavy rains depressed the Schuylkill County harvest. Then again, higher gas prices made it far more costly to haul potatoes cross-country from Idaho.

The way Masser sees it, that was a patch of very good news indeed.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.