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Although the potato is now associated with industrial-scale monoculture, the International Potato Center in Peru has preserved almost 5,000 varieties. (Martin Mejia / AP Images)

How the Potato Changed the World

Brought to Europe from the New World by Spanish explorers, the lowly potato gave rise to modern industrial agriculture

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(Continued from page 1)

The statue was pulled down by Nazis in early 1939, in the wave of anti-Semitic and anti-foreign measures that followed the violent frenzy known as Kristallnacht. Destroying the statue was a crime against art, not history: Drake almost certainly did not introduce the potato to Europe. And even if he had, most of the credit for the potato surely belongs to the Andean peoples who domesticated it.

Geographically, the Andes are an unlikely birthplace for a major staple crop. The longest mountain range on the planet, it forms an icy barrier on the Pacific Coast of South America 5,500 miles long and in many places more than 22,000 feet high. Active volcanoes scattered along its length are linked by geologic faults, which push against one another and trigger earthquakes, floods and landslides. Even when the land is seismically quiet, the Andean climate is active. Temperatures in the highlands can fluctuate from 75 degrees Fahrenheit to below freezing in a few hours—the air is too thin to hold the heat.

From this unpromising terrain sprang one of the world’s great cultural traditions. Even as Egyptians built the pyramids, Andeans were erecting their own monumental temples and ceremonial plazas. For millennia, contentious peoples jostled for power from Ecuador to northern Chile. Most famous today are the Inca, who seized much of the Andes in a violent flash, built great highways and cities splendid with gold, then fell to Spanish disease and Spanish soldiers. The mountain cultures differed strikingly from one another, but all were nourished by tuber and root crops, the potato most important.

Wild potatoes are laced with solanine and tomatine, toxic compounds believed to defend the plants against attacks from dangerous organisms like fungi, bacteria and human beings. Cooking often breaks down such chemical defenses, but solanine and tomatine are unaffected by heat. In the mountains, guanaco and vicuña (wild relatives of the llama) lick clay before eating poisonous plants. The toxins stick—more technically, “adsorb”—to the fine clay particles in the animals’ stomachs, passing through the digestive system without affecting it. Mimicking this process, mountain peoples apparently learned to dunk wild potatoes in a “gravy” made of clay and water. Eventually they bred less-toxic potatoes, though some of the old, poisonous varieties remain, favored for their resistance to frost. Clay dust is still sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets to accompany them.

Edible clay by no means exhausted the region’s culinary creativity. To be sure, Andean Indians ate potatoes boiled, baked and mashed, as Europeans do now. But potatoes were also boiled, peeled, chopped and dried to make papas secas; fermented in stagnant water to create sticky, odoriferous toqosh; and ground to pulp, soaked in a jug and filtered to produce almidón de papa (potato starch). Most ubiquitous was chuño, which is made by spreading potatoes outside to freeze on cold nights, then thawing them in the morning sun. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles transform the spuds into soft, juicy blobs. Farmers squeeze out the water to produce chuño: stiff, styrofoam-like nodules much smaller and lighter than the original tubers. Cooked into a spicy Andean stew, they resemble gnocchi, the potato-flour dumplings in central Italy. Chuño can be kept for years without refrigeration—insurance against bad harvests. It was the food that sustained Inca armies.

Even today, some Andean villagers celebrate the potato harvest much as their ancestors did in centuries past. Immediately after pulling potatoes from the ground, families in the fields pile soil into earthen, igloo-shaped ovens 18 inches tall. Into the ovens go the stalks, as well as straw, brush, scraps of wood and cow dung. When the ovens turn white with heat, cooks place fresh potatoes on the ashes for baking. Steam curls up from hot food into the clear, cold air. People dip their potatoes in coarse salt and edible clay. Night winds carry the smell of roasting potatoes for what seems like miles.

The potato Andeans roasted before contact with Europeans was not the modern spud; they cultivated different varieties at different altitudes. Most people in a village planted a few basic types, but most everyone also planted others to have a variety of tastes. (Andean farmers today produce modern, Idaho-style breeds for the market, but describe them as bland—for yahoos in cities.) The result was chaotic diversity. Potatoes in one village at one altitude could look wildly unlike those a few miles away in another village at another altitude.

In 1995, a Peruvian-American research team found that families in one mountain valley in central Peru grew an average of 10.6 traditional varieties—landraces, as they are called, each with its own name. In adjacent villages Karl Zimmerer, an environmental scientist now at Pennsylvania State University, visited fields with up to 20 landraces. The International Potato Center in Peru has preserved almost 5,000 varieties. The range of potatoes in a single Andean field, Zimmerer observed, “exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.” As a result, the Andean potato is less a single identifiable species than a bubbling stew of related genetic entities. Sorting it out has given taxonomists headaches for decades.

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