How The Northern Pacific Line Helped Make Baked Potatoes A Hit

The history of the baked potato's popularity is tied to entrepreneurship.

In the United Kingdom, baked potatoes, also called jacket potatoes, came into popularity during the early-to-mid 19th century as a street food. In A History of English Food, Clarissa Dickinson Wright argues that the beginning of these street food hawkers was due to the migration of female workers to cities where it was easier to buy a cooked meal on the way home than to cook it.

These sellers often made deals with bakers to use their ovens for mass potato baking (per Medium). Then, like a modern hot dog cart, vendors would convey baked potatoes in a warming compartment with separate sections to hold condiments.

Established as a foundational working-class food, the baked potato has endured as a staple ever since. In the United States, however, it took until the 20th century for the baked potato to reach an audience with its American-grown Idaho baked potato.

All aboard the baked potato train

The idea to use an Idaho potato for baked potatoes came to Hazen Titus, the newly installed dining superintendent of the Northern Pacific Railway, when he heard two farmers talking about the deficiencies in their potatoes in 1908 (per Rails to Trails). Culinary Adventures explains that the American potatoes originally had two major issues — thick skin and massive size. Because no one wanted them, the potatoes were typically fed to pigs.

After some experimentation, the cooks at the Northern Pacific Railway discovered that cooking the potato like a kebab made the inside tender and creamy and the thick skin crisp. In other words, the drawback of the potato's size became its main selling point as all its size meant was that there was more potato to eat.

Today, it might seem strange how interested people were in the potato. However, as Rails to Trails lists, merchandise for the Northern Pacific Railway's potato proliferated: "spoons, letter openers, inkwells, blotters, medallions, mechanical pencils, statuettes, aprons and postcards galore– all featuring the railway's signature giant tuber split down the middle with a spoon on one side and a great big pat of butter on the other." The railway even became known as "The Route of the Great Baked Potato." What was a working-class dish in Britain became a cultural touchstone in the American Northwest, cementing Idaho as the potato capital it is today.