The first Spaniards in the region—the band led by Francisco Pizarro, who landed in 1532—noticed Indians eating these strange, round objects and emulated them, often reluctantly. News of the new food spread rapidly. Within three decades, Spanish farmers as far away as the Canary Islands were exporting potatoes to France and the Netherlands (which were then part of the Spanish empire). The first scientific description of the potato appeared in 1596, when the Swiss naturalist Gaspard Bauhin awarded it the name Solanum tuberosum esculentum (later simplified to Solanum tuberosum).
Unlike any previous European crop, potatoes are grown not from seed but from little chunks of tuber—the misnamed “seed potatoes.” Continental farmers regarded this alien food with fascinated suspicion; some believed it an aphrodisiac, others a cause of fever or leprosy. The philosopher-critic Denis Diderot took a middle stance in his Encyclopedia (1751-65), Europe’s first general compendium of Enlightenment thought. “No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy,” he wrote. “It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.” Diderot viewed the potato as “windy.” (It caused gas.) Still, he gave it the thumbs up. “What is windiness,” he asked, “to the strong bodies of peasants and laborers?”
With such halfhearted endorsements, the potato spread slowly. When Prussia was hit by famine in 1744, King Frederick the Great, a potato enthusiast, had to order the peasantry to eat the tubers. In England, 18th-century farmers denounced S. tuberosum as an advance scout for hated Roman Catholicism. “No Potatoes, No Popery!” was an election slogan in 1765. France was especially slow to adopt the spud. Into the fray stepped Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the potato’s Johnny Appleseed.
Trained as a pharmacist, Parmentier served in the army during the Seven Years’ War and was captured by the Prussians—five times. During his multiple prison stints he ate little but potatoes, a diet that kept him in good health. His surprise at this outcome led Parmentier to become a pioneering nutritional chemist after the war ended, in 1763; he devoted the rest of his life to promulgating S. tuberosum.
Parmentier’s timing was good. After Louis XVI was crowned in 1775, he lifted price controls on grain. Bread prices shot up, sparking what became known as the Flour War: more than 300 civil disturbances in 82 towns. Parmentier tirelessly proclaimed that France would stop fighting over bread if only her citizens would eat potatoes. Meanwhile, he set up one publicity stunt after another: presenting an all-potato dinner to high-society guests (the story goes that Thomas Jefferson, one of the guests, was so delighted he introduced French fries to America); supposedly persuading the king and queen to wear potato blossoms; and planting 40 acres of potatoes at the edge of Paris, knowing that famished commoners would steal them.
In exalting the potato, Parmentier unwittingly changed it. All of Europe’s potatoes descended from a few tubers sent across the ocean by curious Spaniards. When farmers plant pieces of tuber, rather than seeds, the resultant sprouts are clones. By urging potato cultivation on a massive scale, Parmentier was unknowingly promoting the notion of planting huge areas with clones—a true monoculture.
The effects of this transformation were so striking that any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S. tuberosum should be ignored. Hunger was a familiar presence in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Cities were provisioned reasonably well in most years, their granaries carefully monitored, but country people teetered on a precipice. France, the historian Fernand Braudel once calculated, had 40 nationwide famines between 1500 and 1800, more than one per decade. This appalling figure is an underestimate, he wrote, “because it omits the hundreds and hundreds of local famines.” France was not exceptional; England had 17 national and big regional famines between 1523 and 1623. The continent simply could not reliably feed itself.
The potato changed all that. Every year, many farmers left fallow as much as half of their grain land, to rest the soil and fight weeds (which were plowed under in summer). Now smallholders could grow potatoes on the fallow land, controlling weeds by hoeing. Because potatoes were so productive, the effective result, in terms of calories, was to double Europe’s food supply.