A Brief History of the Potato

Feedloader (Clickability)

You know how sometimes, strangers on the plane or train will seek matter for chatter by peeking at what you're reading? It usually works. But I've discovered the perfect conversational stumper: "Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent," a new hardcover by Yale University Press.

As they stare at the book jacket, which features a photo of a large, lone potato looming over the oddly academic title, I can guess what they're thinking: "What kind of person wants to read an entire book about a potato ?" For that matter, who writes one? (A man named John Reader, which means I'm writing about reading a Reader's writing. Who's on first?) But I say to my bemused fellow passengers, and to you, that it's a surprisingly fascinating subject.

I set out to blog about this book because of St Patrick's Day and the potato's reputation as the quintessential Irish food. But while the potato was indeed hugely important to Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, that's not where the plant's history is rooted, as Reader reveals in the first few pages:

"Far from being an unassuming item of food that Europeans had been eating since time immemorial (as I, like many, had once supposed), the potato is a native of South America, where it had been domesticated by the pre-Inca people of the Andes about 8,000 years ago."

So perhaps Cinco de Mayo would have been a more apt holiday connection. Too late, I'm hooked on potato history, and you'll have to put up with it! (And if you delve into Reader's book, you'll have to put up with a bit of corn as well, i.e.: "Take a close look at a potato; look deep into its eyes.")

Nutritionally, potatoes are pretty much the complete package. They are low in fat, full of complex carbohydrates, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and also contain a surprising amount of protein—on par with soybeans when ranked in terms of biological value. Studies have shown that people can live healthily for months an all-potato diet (supplemented by a little margarine or milk), although this requires eating as many as 7 pounds of potatoes a day and surely drives the palate mad with monotony.

It's often hard to define a plant's origin, and cultivated potatoes are "an especially difficult case" because they have so many wild relatives (at least 169) over a very wide geographic range, Reader tells us. The potato showed up in Europe during the 16th century, but the question of who brought it there remains unresolved. Some say it was Sir Francis Drake, some say Sir Walter Raleigh, but Reader doubts both versions. He suggests that Spanish conquistadors brought potato cultivars back from the Americas as early as 1562 (first to the Canary Islands, then the mainland), but may have kept the discovery of this novel food source secret from their European neighbors for a while. Reader warns us to "be wary of conspiracy theories" but thinks the evidence points to something "distinctly odd."

Spanish conspiracy or not, potatoes were common enough in England by the turn of the 17th century to merit mention from Shakespeare, and by the late 1700s the Prussian ruler Frederick the Great had become so convinced of the potato's merit that he ordered his subjects to grow them.

Long before toys like Mr. Potato Head were invented or the United Nations declared the International Year of the Potato, the potato's biggest promoter (besides Frederick the Great) was a French pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. He had done time as a Prussian prisoner during the Seven Years War, and literally owed his life to the plant, according to Reader:

"While in captivity he was fed almost exclusively on potatoes. On his release in 1763, delighted to find that he had not only survived for three years...but was also in remarkably good heath."

Parmentier won friends in high places for the humble potato, with gimmicks like presenting a bouquet of potato flowers to Marie Antoinette and hosting potato-themed dinners for guests like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. This connection may also be how the concept of french fries traveled to America, which makes me want to bedeck Parmentier's grave with grateful bouquets (potato flowers, of course, and possibly a bit of ketchup).

In Ireland, the potato was something of a mixed blessing. It provided a cheap bounty of nutrition to a rural population in a land that had often struggled with its food supply, and helped fuel a population boom by improving public health. It helped the economy, too, by freeing up more grain for export. But as more and more people came to rely on potatoes as a principal food source, the stage was set for a national tragedy. When a blight of fungus wiped out the Irish potato crops in the 1840s, it also wiped out about one-quarter of the country's population (one million dead, one million emigrated).

Wish I could wrap this up with a happier ending, but I haven't made it all the way through Reader's book just yet. I did notice that the hero of the last book I read, the Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov, makes an appearance, so I'm eager to read on...

I've got a fierce hankering for home fries now. Think I'll try this recipe from Smitten Kitchen!

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.