The Journey of the Potato


November 26, 2012

For 25 years I’ve been infatuated with a 34-page pamphlet.

It’s called A GUIDE TO HARVARD UNIVERSITY DINING SERVICES. It was slipped into the welcome packets for incoming Harvard freshmen in 1988 by folks at the Harvard Lampoon.

It’s one of the funniest things I have ever seen — if not the funniest.

It was given to me by my old friend Dave Blakney in 1988, and I’ve held onto it ever since. (Blakney is also the person who, circa 1985, turned me on to the work of the great B. Kliban, whose single-panel cartoons are also in my Pantheon of things funniest-ever.) Chances are you won’t find it nearly as funny as I do — that’s humor for you — but I’ve gone ahead and scanned and uploaded each page, below.

I can quote much of the booklet verbatim. Bits of it — hundreds of tiny snippets — are permanently embedded in my consciousness. They arise from time to time as comic hiccups. If I’m in a restaurant, for example, I might ask the waitress if “blanched hagfish” is available, or if “grape-flavored apple pie” is on the dessert menu.

“Chinese-style Delvecchio chips”? I have no idea what in the world that that means, if anything, but it’s just plain funny.

And the whole potato thing. I hardly know where to begin: “raspberry potato shuffle,” “hot potato sandwich with liniment.” It goes on and on. (See pages 16-17, and the list on page 27).

And excerpts like, “This painstakingly maintained original uses 40,000 ordinary 3-watt light bulbs”(page 17). How is that not the funniest thing in the world? Or, “On cracker day, every dish is served on a cracker”(page 13).

It’s all so subtle and pitch-perfect, yet completely bananas at the same time.

But I never knew who, exactly, was responsible for it. The names “Sanders Metcalf” and “Samuel David,” and the words “a Graphex Production,” appear at the bottom of the inside cover. These were the only clues.

Earlier this year I wrote about the booklet as an addendum to one of my columns at Salon, hoping to flush out its authors. With thousands of people reading my column and sharing links, I thought for sure the authors would be revealed.

But they weren’t. Nobody knew anything.

Then three days ago I got an email. And all has been revealed.

The details, I discover, are these:

It turns out the “Sanders Metcalf” is none other than Ben Metcalf, who until recently was a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. Back in ’88 he wrote for the Lampoon.

“Samuel David” is David Samuels, another well-known Harper’s writer.

I’ve been reading Samuels’ and Metcalf’s stuff in Harper’s for years. That they would be the co-conspirators of my parody booklet is something I wouldn’t have considered in a million years. (Samuels wrote the recent essay, “The Changeling: The Content of His Character,” about Barack Obama, which only weeks ago I had been emailing to everybody I know, partly because it was so damn funny.)

“Graphex Productions” was a tag used by a guy at the Lampoon named Glenn McDonald. He was responsible for the booklet’s photography and the “Journey of the Potato” section.He is the one who filled me in. McDonald still lives in Cambridge, where he’s a critic and author of the online music column, The War Against Silence.

“Twas, as you say, many years ago,” says McDonald. “And of the various things with which I have been involved, this is not exactly the one I would most have expected to occupy a place of honor in anybody’s personal canon! But very cool that it does, and I will tell you what I can!

“We did a lot of parodies at the Lampoon. Most often they were declared and labeled as parodies, but every once in a while we did one intended to pass, at least initially, for the real thing. Parody issues of the Harvard Crimson or other campus periodicals, mostly. But as you know, this Guide was slipped in amongst actual college material on student doorsteps. I remember racing up and down residence stairways performing the insertions.

“As with most things at the Lampoon, this one was a large group effort to write, and a small group effort to edit and actually assemble and print. Editorial authority for projects went around in a rotation weighted by seniority, and I’m pretty sure this one was done when David Samuels and I were juniors, and Ben Metcalf was a senior.

“I must have done the layout and design, although I no longer remember whether it was one of the last things we produced on physical layout boards with line-tape and rubylith and so forth, or one of the first things we did with the then-new-and-novel Macintosh computer. I took most of the pictures that weren’t stolen from old yearbooks.

“Other than David and Ben and I, two people who I’m pretty certain were involved were Stacie Lipp, who went on to a successful career in comedy, and Matt Leibowitz, who is now a doctor and medical researcher at UCLA.”

McDonald says that several others may also have collaborated, a few of whom went on to comedic renown. His memory is foggy, but among these were Bill Oakley, who later became one of the early producers of The Simpsons (when the show was actually funny; I recognized his name immediately); David Cohen, who also worked on The Simpsons and co-created the show Futurama, and Rachel Pulido, who wrote “Springfield Stories,” one of my favorite Simpsons episodes.

Those Chinese-style Delvecchio chips?

“This is an example of the collective Lampoon penchant for lists of structurally plausible but otherwise unintelligible phrases,” explains McDonald. “Especially in large batches, these start to take on their own internal logic, which makes them one of the few forms of humor that are almost as funny while you’re writing them as when you read them.”




One ASK THE PILOT reader did some sleuthing and discovered that the photos from the “Dining Hall Heroes” section are yearbook pictures of Harvard students who had graduated in 1980. Here are the originals….


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7 Responses to “The Journey of the Potato”
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  1. Rachel says:

    Lick the Lobster sounds vaguely obscene …maybe a frat pledge activity?

  2. Rachel says:

    I’m with you on Kliban…one of the best artists/cartoonists ever.
    And great article, BTW. Love the Harvard booklet XD.

  3. poker rules says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post.

  4. Nice post, very useful information and very interesting

  5. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I wish to read more things about it! Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info specially the last part 🙂

  6. Doc says:

    Wow, I shoulda gone to Harvard…

    All those twinkies and HoHo’s would have been replaced with a fish six times a day!

    Fortunately, no matter where you overpay for your education, future students will not be faced with the choice between twinkies and dogfish!

  7. Paul says:

    I’m pleased the mystery has finally been solved!