In Victorian England, the baked potato had dual purposes. Sold from street-side “cans” — metal boxes on four legs, with charcoal-fueled fire pots within — the potatoes could be used as hand-warmers when tucked inside a mitten or muff, or body warmers when consumed on the spot as a hot and filling snack. Potato sellers by the hundreds set up cans on London streets, selling their wares from August to April, as ubiquitous as today’s ice cream trucks but serving the opposite season.
Buyers and sellers of those spuds had little choice but to be out on the streets, whatever the weather. That’s where the business was, that’s where workers could buy a quick meal, that’s where friends might encounter each other, standing close to the can for warmth. A little food, a little fire, a little chat — these elements made being outdoors in winter bearable.
A hot potato is a small gesture against the elements. But it is also inexpensive, portable, requires minimal setup to cook and comes in its own wrapper. For the winter ahead, American cities need a lot more ideas like the baked potato: pop-up comforts, at many scales, that can gather a crowd outdoors and ensure people get the sun and socialization they need. Don’t write off the darkest season before it even begins. What if cities took their cues from the Victorians, and made no retreat from the elements? What if we spent Covid winter outside … and enjoyed it?