“Maybe I needed to make like a potato, winnow myself down, be part of something that was not easy, just simple.”
Every so often, a post will pop up on the Whistler Winter or Summer Facebook group, where much of the community’s watercooler talk takes place these days, to lament the loss of a local icon: the fully loaded baked potato from the Marketplace IGA, which has since rebranded to Fresh St. Market.
One such post caught my eye a few weeks back. It read, simply: Bring back IGA baked potatoes. Like clockwork, I watched as the likes piled up and the comments waxed poetic about this starchy stand-by that fed many a broke Whistlerite over the years. Seeing the outpouring of appreciation, I decided it was high time I dug a bit deeper into why this humble meal has seemed to gain such reverent status among local ski bums. So I posted to the same Facebook group, asking for potato proselytizers to share their opinions, and lo and behold, 250 likes, dozens of comments, and even a few heartfelt DMs later, and I can tell you that what started out as a fun, quirky story about a succulently prepared and impossibly cheap baked potato turned into something altogether more profound.
For the unfamiliar, let’s get you up to speed. For years, the IGA deli counter offered a baked potato with all the fixings you might expect: a healthy sprinkling of cheddar cheese, baked to gooey goodness, offset by a dollop of sour cream, garnished with crunchy bacon bits and sharp green onion. There was also an option to get a ladle of piping hot chili poured over top instead of the classic sour cream-bacon-green-onion combo.
“It was just all the ingredients, in the right quantities. Specifically, you’ve got to get enough cheese. Somehow they found a way to combine each ingredient to exactly the right amount,” said local musician Helen Hamilton, who was inspired recently to recreate the IGA baked potato at home. It didn’t quite come out as planned. “I tried to recreate it, but I didn’t bake the potato for long enough,” she said. “It was kinda soggy. The IGA potato was somehow perfectly crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside.”
It’s hard to know how much of the baked potato’s near-mythic status is due to some sort of culinary wizardry on behalf of the hard-working folks behind the IGA deli counter—I mean, it’s a baked potato, how hard could it be?—or if it’s the sheer fact that it was a hearty, filling meal you could still get for under $5 in a town where bargains are rare and ample kitchen space even rarer.
“This meal was the meal of Gods back when it was $3.50 and you could load it up yourself!” wrote one tater nostalgist on Facebook. (Here’s where I have to admit I haven’t been able to pin down the exact price of this thrifty meal deal. What seems obvious is it went up over time. I have heard it go for as low as $2 back in the early ’00s, all the way up to $5.99 before it was discontinued a few years ago. Most consistently, I heard it was $4.20, which is the price tag I remember most vividly, and clearly the most Whistler-appropriate. #LegalizeIt. Oh wait.)
These potatoes were such hot items that even a bargain couldn’t keep the ski bums from pilfering them. Danielle Phelan remembers when the price went over $4 for the first time, and soon after IGA began requiring customers pre-pay at the counter because too many folks would get their precious potato, load it up at the self-serve topping bar, and then bounce. (IGA eventually stopped allowing customers load up their own potato.)
“You had to pre-pay at the till, then go to the deli and show your receipt to receive the sacred potato,” recalled Phelan, who is such a fan of IGA’s meal deal that she cabbed herself to and from the Marketplace store the morning after her 21st birthday just to get one.
“It nourished my soul.”
This is something I was somewhat taken aback by in the flurry of responses I got from spud aficionados. Many talked about the baked potato in almost religious tones, which, initially, I took for the kind of wink-wink irony that usually accompanies these kinds of innocuous food stories. And certainly, many of the responses were just that: a bit of harmless online fun. (I personally liked the guy who called on Whistler’s election candidates to make the baked potato “a keystone municipal election issue.” I did reach out to a contact at Fresh St. to inquire about the possibility of bringing the baked potato back, but sadly, did not get a response by press time. The dream lives on.)
But, at a certain point, all the jokes and hyperbole circle back around into something more genuine. The lowly potato has for generations been a symbol of resilience, resourcefulness, humility and comfort. And in a town that is not only just down the road from one of the most productive patches of potato-growing land on the continent, but is also filled to the brim with overworked, underpaid front-line staff who barely have two nickels to rub together on a good day, it’s no wonder that IGA’s fully loaded baked potato has fully loaded itself into Whistlerites’ hearts.
But don’t take it from me. Avowed local “potato connoisseur” Robbie Stewart said it better than I ever could, so I’ll leave you with some of the inspired potato prose he generously shared with Pique.
“No matter how hard your day was, or what Whistler could throw at you, the loaded baked potato at IGA was there for you. It was there for you when landlords and friends were not. It was there for you when the snow and sunshine were not. It was there when everything around you was falling to pieces. It was there,” he wrote. “Many a time after being screamed at by guests through work, for things that were not my fault, the potato would cure my woes and soothe my soul. I miss them so much and I am sure so many others do too.”