Aw, Gratin! Couch Potatoes Say Their Image Has Taken a Mashing at a California County Fair

updated 08/08/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1988 01:00AM

Tuber or not tuber? That is the question in northern California, ever since the judges at the Sonoma County Fair picked John Silveira as their Designate Couch Potato.

They say potato; others say baloney. The winner was to be on display, watching TV from a couch, at the fairgrounds through Aug. 7, just as if he were truly best-of-breed. But in fact beneath Silveira's relatively svelte 210-lb. exterior beats the heart of an active, healthy, 24-year-old San Francisco State University film student with a print-shop job and plenty of outside interests. He hikes, he bikes, he even eats yogurt. Runner-up Dean Houghton, a superbly slothful 300-lb. unemployed maintenance man, is in a stew about it, and he couches his criticism in no uncertain terms. "The fair spud is a dud," he declares.

Houghton believes the judges made a mockery of the contest, and he's not too proud to say so. Never mind the $1,000 prize that comes with the title, which is no small potatoes to a non-working man. Consider the basic injustice of the selection. No matter how you slice it, Houghton seems far better qualified than the slimmish pretender to the couch who walked away with the title.

While Silveira watches TV mainly at night, the sedentary runner-up parks in front of the box virtually around the clock. And whereas Silveira's idea of junk food is a horrendously healthy peanut butter (extra crunchy) sandwich and a glass of milk, Houghton keeps his trough stocked with Pepsi, Cheez-lts and Ding Dongs that he smothers with jam.

According to the Official Couch Potato Handbook (written by Jack Mingo of Alameda, Calif., who claims to have originated the term), a true sofa slug would never be caught dead watching educational TV or anything British. Yet Silveira admits to watching PBS, the Discovery channel, even the news. By contrast, Houghton makes every effort to tune in only those shows with no redeeming social value whatever—The Flintstones, Gilligan's Island and Brady Bunch reruns.

Even more shocking, Sonoma's Designate Couch Potato doesn't even watch from a couch. "I usually sit in a rocking chair," Silveira confesses. "My friends had to train me to use the couch." Houghton, on the other hand, was to the sofa born. His family and friends readily attest to his lifelong potatoish tendencies. As a tater tot, he routinely shunned his homework for marathon sit-down sessions basking in the glow of the cathode rays.

Sad to say, the judges' choice appears to have been blatantly political. After announcing the contest, folks at the fair started fielding phone calls from disgruntled health advocates who felt that, with an expected 200,000 eyes upon him, the potato would set a bad example. "All of a sudden," says special events coordinator Jane Engdahl, "we realized that whoever we chose was going to have to deal with people who would object to the whole idea. I wouldn't say that influenced our decision, but it did influence the questions we asked the contestants."

Instead of grilling the 20-odd potential potatoes on TV trivia or the merits, say, of chips versus pretzels, judges asked the vying vegetables how they'd respond to accusations that they were promoting obesity and providing a bad role model for kids. Silveira's off-couch activities impressed Engdahl and the other three judges. "There's a little couch potato in all of us," says Engdahl, "but he is unusual. He's someone who can represent those of us who work for a living, who can't sit and watch TV all day."

"I described myself as a California couch potato," says Silveira. "We're a little more active." Houghton, to his credit, responded like a true tuber. "I told them that if somebody came up and asked me why I just sit around and watch TV, I'd tell them, 'It's what I do best.' "

The judges' decision came as a surprise to all involved. "The other contestants showed up wearing couch potato T-shirts," says Silveira. "I'm not really into it. I didn't think I had a chance." For his part, Houghton says he thought he had the contest "cinched" and confides that he was "stunned" when he lost.

He wasn't the only one. Among outraged spec-taters at the event was handbook author Mingo, who says that he and some of his fellow tubers were boiling mad at the selection—almost mad enough to take action. But they didn't want to do anything half-baked. "We were thinking about picketing," said Mingo. "But, hey, why waste valuable viewing time?"

—By Mary Roach in Santa Rosa, Calif.

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