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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Historic Staple of Local Diet Gets a Deserved Celebration

APVladimir Neupokoyev, a participant in the event, holding out spuds Thursday.
It was a Spud-nik celebration.

Thousands of scientists, business executives and gastronomes from around the world converged on Moscow last week to lavish praise on a Russian icon: The common potato.

The occasion was Moscow Potato 2007, advertised as Russia's first global potato congress, in which the world's leading potato-heads debated the subtleties of planting, exchanged cooking tips and strategized on ways to promote the potato around the world.

The lumpy tuber holds a privileged place in Russian history and hearts.

Among Peter the Great's many reforms was introducing potatoes 300 years ago. They were initially rejected by the peasantry as "Devil's apples" but quickly caught on and eventually came to rival cabbages and beets as staples of the Russian diet.

During the worst Soviet famines, the potato saved millions of lives.

Organizers staged the three-day spud fest at the sprawling All-Russia Exhibition Center in the north and the All-Russia Research Institute for Potato Growing to the southeast of the city.

Boris Vershinin, a biologist from the city of Kislovodsk who specializes in the crop, said farmers eventually learned to plant it in fields where agriculture is risky because of unpredictable weather, high humidity and early winters.

Although the Russian diet has improved drastically in the 16 years since the Soviet collapse, the potato still rules many fields. The Agriculture Ministry says about 3.2 million hectares of farmland are dedicated to growing potatoes.

Meanwhile, people have been learning to eat potatoes in new ways.

During the Communist era, people knew such things as potato chips existed, but only because they saw them in the movies. Last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor International, Russians bought almost 130,000 tons of potato chips.