Dave Barry

Classic '97: Self-mashed potatoes


This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, February 16, 1997.

Two dramatic recent developments have demonstrated, once again, why these are such exciting times in which to be a vegetable.

For openers, scientists have finally realized one of humanity's oldest dreams -- the dream of creating, in the laboratory, a potato that commits suicide.

If you don't believe me you should dig out your Oct. 24, 1996, issue of Machine Design magazine and check out the article on page 139, sent to me by alert reader Mark Mielke, concerning work being done by leading potato scientists in Cologne, which as you know is a city in France or Germany or possibly Belgium.

But wherever it is, Cologne contains the Max Planck Plant Breeding Institute, where scientists have been messing around with potato genes. Genes are little items that are found in every living thing except Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. As most of us recall from biology class, a gene can be either ''dominant'' or ''recessive,'' depending on which type of gene it is. With this knowledge and a pair of very tiny pliers, scientists can alter the genetic structure of a living thing, and the Cologne scientists have modified a potato so that, if it catches a fungus disease, it will cause itself to die. (I did not follow the technical details of how the potato does this, although we can probably rule out firearms, because many states, despite the clear intent of the U.S. Constitution, no longer allow vegetables to obtain handguns without a ''cooling-off'' period.)

The question is: Is it morally right to make potatoes commit suicide? Potatoes are, after all, living organisms that perform the same basic life functions as humans -- growing, reproducing and purchasing state-lottery tickets. Can we look a potato square in its eyes and say that we have the right to ''play god'' this way? And once we do this to potatoes, what is to stop us from doing it to other species? Every day, in TV commercials and magazine advertisements, we see close-up color pictures of the feet of human beings who are suffering from the heartbreak of toe fungus. Are we going to start putting suicidal potato genes into these people? I hope so, because those pictures are disgusting.

We also need to give serious thought to the issue of radicchio. I don't know about you, but I hate it when I order a salad, and instead of some nice, green lettuce, I get these scrawny sprigs of radicchio, which is Italian for ''tastes so bad that even a starving goat spits it out.'' If we're going to make ANY vegetable suicidal, this is where we should start.

But enough about killing vegetables. What about the other side? What about the issue of healing vegetables, specifically tomatoes, through prayer? This issue recently was the subject of an experiment, which I absolutely swear I am not making up, conducted by Jay Ingram, who does a science show on the Discovery Channel on Canadian TV. According to newspaper articles sent in by several alert Canadian readers, the experiment involved six tubs of tomatoes, some of which had been punctured and infected with tomato blight. Some of the tomatoes were visited by healers, who, according to Ingram, directed ''healing thoughts'' toward them. The public was also invited to ''think powerful healing thoughts when the tomatoes are periodically shown on your TV screens.''

The results, according to the show's World Wide Web site were as follows:

''In the three tubs that had good thoughts sent to them, the average size of the wound was virtually the same as the wounds on the tomatoes in the control group. However, of the three tubs of tomatoes prayed for, one tub was interesting in that the size of the wounds was the smallest of the six tubs. What is the explanation for this? Is it simply biological variation? Or, is there something else at work here? More tightly controlled experiments would need to be conducted to explore this outcome.''

So there you have it: A definite ''We don't know'' from the groundbreaking Canadian tomato-prayer experiment. The Web site does not say what happened to the tomatoes, but it would not surprise me in the least to see them on TV advertising their new psychic hot line.

Meanwhile, all this research has aroused my scientific curiosity. I'm going to go conduct a tightly controlled experiment to see what happens when you put ketchup on fries. Pray for me.