Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Half Baked

Sam Rayburn at the 1937 Potato Battle/tiles/non-collection/1/11-16-photo-potato-rayburn-PA2013_01_0009f.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Majority Leader Sam Rayburn dug into a plate of Idaho tubers. Rayburn reportedly preferred Texas potatoes.
Most debates in the House are settled on the House Floor. But one unusual battle was fought—with potatoes—at the House Restaurant. In the northeastern corner, armed with Aroostook spuds, was Maine. In the northwestern corner, nicknamed the “Potato State,” was Idaho. Maine versus Idaho: the half-baked potato war of 1937.

The potato war first started in the states. Proud of his produce, Governor Barzilla Clark of Idaho declared that Idaho potatoes were the best in the nation. Taking Clark’s statement as fighting words, Lewis Barrows, governor of Maine, struck back. Barrows called Clark a champion liar and sent Maine tubers to the governor of each state. Not to be outdone, Clark and his staff shipped hundreds of crates packed with prime Idaho potatoes to Washington, D.C., and doled them out to Members of Congress and journalists. The war between two states quickly escalated to the federal level. “The national capital is fairly wallowing in Idaho potatoes,” trilled the Christian Science Monitor. “Not old potatoes either. Each potato is wrapped delicately in tissue paper. Each a nugget of tuberous succulence.”

Bertrand Snell at the 1937 Potato Battle/tiles/non-collection/1/11-16-photo-potato-snell-PA2015_09_0042a.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Minority Leader Bertrand Snell sampled Maine and Idaho spuds during the 1937 potato battle in the House Restaurant.
To settle it once and for all, Maine Representatives Ralph Brewster, James Oliver, and Clyde Smith and Idaho Members David Clark and Compton White agreed to a showdown—a carb-loaded luncheon in the House Restaurant, with honors awarded to the best tubers. The judges were Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias; Carding T. Elbo, a secretary standing in for Resident Commissioner Quintin Paredes of the Philippines; Anthony J. Dimond, Delegate from Alaska; and Hawaiian Delegate Samuel W. King (who hosted his own Hawaiian-style luau, featuring Hawaiian sweet potatoes, two years later in the same room). On the House Floor, these Delegates could not vote on legislation, and so “were therefore judged impartial,” a photo caption explained.

At 12:30 on December 7, 1937, the battle commenced. Platters of plump baked potatoes filled the table, and the pressure was on. Minority Leader Bertrand Snell delicately sampled spuds with a fork, as one House Collection photograph shows. Majority Leader Sam Rayburn, in another image, wolfed down an Idaho tater with his bare hands. Attendees forcefully touted the products of their states and, as the Boston Globe wrote, “everyone who could crowd into the room put in a plug for something, or somebody.” Speaker William Bankhead of Alabama asserted that if the contest had been “to decide the potency of the sweet potato the vote would go unanimously for Alabama yams.” Henry A. Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture, exclaimed: “In my opinion the best potato is a certain ‘Old Potato’ from New York. This contest is to decide which is second best.” A reporter overheard Sam Rayburn shouting “something about the ‘yellow rose of Texas.’”

Alaska-Canada-United States Good-will Trail-blazing Tour/tiles/non-collection/1/11-16-photo-potato-dimond-PA2014_10_0026a.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Territorial Delegates and Resident Commissioners served as judges in the contest, but chose not to cast a vote in the matter. Later that week, the Alaska-Canada-United States “Good-will Trail-blazing Tour” arrived at the Capitol, delivering a truckload of Alaskan potatoes and other souvenirs to Delegate Dimond.
Faced with all the interstate pressure-cooking, the Delegates and Resident Commissioners refused to crown a winner. “In fact it didn’t look as if they were trying,” scolded the Globe. Perhaps they worried that picking a side would hurt their territory’s chances at achieving statehood, or gaining independence, which the Philippines were on the path to attaining. Instead, they left the luncheon at what newspapers declared a “half-baked” verdict. It was “a raw decision,” Representative Brewster huffed.

Minority Leader Snell joked that he considered the battle to be one of the highlights of the special session of Congress. Because “the potato eating contest between Idaho and Maine to judge the relative merits of the lowly spud” finished in a tie, Snell wryly suggested that “the final result seems to be a toothache for the county.”

Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1937; and Boston Globe, December 5, 1937.

This is part of a series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.