Don’t bother looking for Gary Johnston’s Wikipedia entry. There isn’t one.
Inspect your heaving Thanksgiving plate this weekend, however, and you might see evidence of his handiwork. If the host chef knows their spuds, the mashed potatoes will have a distinct yellow hue to them – calling card of the famed Yukon Gold potato.
On a most unusual Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for a most unassuming Canadian hero – the humble civil servant who gave us a lump of starch that has graced the caviar-flecked plates of queens and presidents, yet is equally at home on a Melmac plate next to grandma’s yams and a jiggle of canned cranberry sauce.
Forty years ago this month, Mr. Johnston, an Agriculture Canada plant scientist seconded to the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Ont., registered the Yukon Gold potato with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The successful licensing marked the end of a 14-year breeding process and the beginning of a retail crop beloved by the likes of Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton and Wolfgang Puck.
“He’s the Steve Jobs of the potato breeding world,” says Alexander York von Sivers, an archivist of all things Yukon Gold whose father worked with Mr. Johnston decades ago. “He accomplished something extraordinary.”
While his achievement was singular, his biography bears the universal themes of the Greatest Generation, that resilient cohort who overcame a decade of the Great Depression and then six years of world war before setting out for personal and professional fulfillment in the 1950s.
“I think Gary’s story can inspire a lot of young people who are right now facing such a complex world,” Mr. York von Sivers says.
Born and raised on a farm near Alma, 100 kilometres west of Toronto, Mr. Johnston earned a teaching certificate and entered the job market around 1934, just as the world economy had flat-lined. He spent a year unemployed before finding work at a country school for $500 a year, equivalent to about $9,000 today.
“I hate to admit that, but it was $500, and I also had to do the cleaning and look after the stove and all those other duties,” he said in a 1997 interview for the oral history archives of the University of Guelph, which assumed control of the Ontario Agricultural College in 1964.
In 1941, with German bombers cratering much of London, Mr. Johnston enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He remained in North America for the duration of the war, teaching bombing and gunnery theory before getting transferred to Newfoundland. As the war ended, his future was uncertain until he bumped into a former high school principal, who encouraged him to take advantage of a government program for veterans and return to school.
He enrolled at Ontario Agricultural College with an eye on an advanced teaching degree, but those aspirations faded when he became enamoured with chemistry – and disappeared altogether when he entered a field husbandry master’s program. He specialized in winter wheat, but when the school’s resident potato breeder left for another job in 1953, Mr. Johnston took on the role. The two paired like sour cream on a baked Idaho.
“I found that I was very, very good at it, and I enjoyed it, and so after a period of time I started to turn out new varieties,” he said.
The work took him around the province speaking to Dutch, German and other European immigrants who’d taken to potato farming but lamented North America’s lack of yellow-fleshed varieties.
Mr. Johnston dismissed the idea of breeding such a potato until a Peruvian graduate student introduced him to the Yema de huevos (literally “egg yolk”), a rough, walnut-sized variety with yellow flesh that was considered a delicacy among Lima’s open markets. Mr. Johnston saw the future of the industry.
A master at crossing varieties, Mr. Johnston preferred a rudimentary but intimate method, tapping pollen from one flower onto his thumb nail and then using a small paint brush to lift it from his nail and place it in another flower.
In 1966, he crossed the Yema de huevo with a larger, globular, shallow-eyed potato – the Norgleam. It was the 66th cross he’d attempted that year, resulting in the working name G6666.
That was just the beginning of the painstaking process.
“Potato breeders have to be a patient lot,” says Anita Stewart, a culinary historian and food laureate at the University of Guelph, who befriended Mr. Johnston toward the end of his life. “And he had such a passion for the craft.”
Over the next few years, he would grow more G6666s and carefully select the best ones, typically just 10 per cent of the yield, for further cultivation the following year.
“He had a real eye for the crop,” says Vanessa Currie, who worked with Mr. Johnston in the 1990s and remains a potato research technician with the University of Guelph. “He chose a very yellow potato that was a little different than what was available, with good texture, good flavour. He saw that it could be something special.”
Fourteen years after the first cross, the G6666 was finally ready to be licensed. But it needed a name. There’d been a tradition in Canada to name new varieties after bodies of water: Trent, Huron, Superior, Nipigon. Mr. Johnston came up with Yukon and was about to submit his registration when a colleague, Charlie Bishop, suggested he add ‘Gold’ at the end to differentiate the new variety from the pale spuds that dominated the market.
At the time, the North American potato defined dull – pasty, white, flavourless. The marketing gimmick worked. Two large Ontario growers printed the name in huge letters on 10-pound bags that began selling rapidly in supermarkets and earning notice in professional kitchens.
“Before that, nobody ever thought you could have a gourmet potato,” says Ms. Currie. “The potato was just sustenance. The Yukon Gold changed all that.”
John Moeller, who was the White House chef from 1992 to 2005, a period spanning two Bushes and a Clinton, says he doesn’t remember hearing much about the Yukon Gold while learning his craft in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, however, the yellow potato had become the buzz of top-flight kitchens. “We all started seeing it and playing around with it,” he says. “Taste-wise and presentation-wise, it really had a lot going for it. I started at the White House in ’92, and we used it quite often my entire time there.”
Though he says all the presidents emphasized healthy eating at the White House to offset the high-calorie meals they consumed on the road, none complained when he served his Yukon Gold dauphinoise, a baked dish of potato slices layered with garlicky custard, Swiss cheese and Parmesan. It continued to be a favourite of the Obama White House after Mr. Moeller left.
Today, Mr. Johnston’s spuds have become a fixture for celebrity chefs. Gordon Ramsay likes a mashed Yukon with plenty of double cream. Nigella Lawson makes them into spiralized shoestring fries. Ina Garten roasts Yukons with garlic, lemon and rosemary.
As for Mr. Johnston, he preferred a less pretentious approach.
“Grandpa liked to bake a plain potato low and slow in the oven so they’d be golden and crispy when they came out,” says his eldest granddaughter, Audra Bolton. “And around the table he’d always say, ‘Don’t be skimpy with the butter.’ ”
Mr. Johnston, who died in 2000 at the age of 85, brought the Yukon Gold to market a few years before the establishment of laws guaranteeing breeders' rights, meaning he missed out on royalty payments.
“He never did it for the financial gain,” says his granddaughter. “He was a quiet, intelligent man who found his passion. And that was enough for him.”
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