A humble root vegetable has changed the course of human history — twice

By Seth Freeman

Somehow, growing up, I always associated potatoes with Ireland and the Irish, and I assumed that Ireland is where potatoes came from. I was wrong. There is, certainly, a powerful intersection in Irish history with the potato, a fact worth remembering as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, but the full story of this unprepossessing tuber is actually far richer — and more interesting — than you might have imagined.

Potatoes were first cultivated as long as seven thousand, possibly even ten thousand, years ago by the early Incas living in the Andes of Peru. In 1536 Spanish Conquistadors invaded Peru and discovered the attractions of the potato. They brought some varieties home although they did not immediately become popular. Some fifty years later, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland, and in the following decades the potato rapidly spread throughout the rest of Europe.

This statue in Offenberg, Germany, honors Sir Francis Drake for bringing the potato to Europe from the New World, although that was not something he ever did. The statue was torn down by the Nazis, probably because Drake was Jewish although, in fact, he was not.

European farmers increasingly found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate compared to other staple crops like wheat and oats. More importantly, potatoes packed a tremendous bang for the buck. They contain most of the vitamins people need for sustenance. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source for potassium (better than a banana) and vitamin B6. They are also free of fat, sodium and cholesterol, with about 110 calories per serving. Potatoes, it was found, could feed ten people for each acre of land on which they were grown.

The farmers then discovered another important advantage of potatoes — they worked extremely well as an alternate crop to plant in fields where the usual crop needed to be periodically rotated. They also thrived in far more varied climates and types of soil than other more sensitive food plants. Until potatoes arrived in Europe, periodic famines and hunger were an inevitable part of life. The addition of potatoes to the European diet conferred a degree of food security which enabled Europeans to spend more time exploring the rest of the world and in foreign adventures. It is not too far a reach to say that potatoes fueled and sustained European colonialism. In that sense this single, simple crop was pivotal in transforming the power structure and demographics of the globe.

But it was in the Nineteenth Century when potatoes took center stage in the drama of human history. By the early 1800s the potato had already become the only solid food in the diet of four out of ten people in Ireland. When, in the 1840s, a major outbreak of potato blight swept through Europe, in Ireland the main food staple disappeared seemingly overnight. During the course of the ensuing famine, nearly a million people died from starvation and disease. Another one million left Ireland, mostly headed to Canada and the United States. The country’s population declined from about eight and half million people to about six and a half million. For a second time the potato was pivotal in altering the course of human history.

The potato that we know as the Irish potato is actually only one of over 500 known varieties of the Andean tuber. A crop of potatoes is not grown from seeds, although the little chunks of tuber from which they are actually grown are called by the misnomer “seed potatoes.” The proper name for the seed potato is rhizome, the part of the plant from which the tubers develop. The tubers are essentially enlarged storage organs for the plant, its source of nutrition, and thus they are packed with nutrients, many of which are also beneficial for humans.

As potatoes became more common throughout Europe, a number of myths about them began to circulate. Some continental farmers believed the potato to be an aphrodisiac. Others thought that potatoes caused fever or even leprosy. Still others simply dismissed potatoes as uninteresting. “No matter how you prepare it,” snarked the philosopher-critic Denis Diderot, “the root is tasteless and starchy.”

A slightly younger contemporary of Diderot, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, served in the French army during the Seven Years War and managed to get captured by the Prussians — five times. During each of his multiple prison stints he ate little but potatoes, a diet that kept him in good health. Parmentier was a pharmacist by training and had a scientific mind. He was impressed, in this involuntary natural experiment on himself, with the life sustaining properties of potatoes.

A dozen years after the war, in 1775, Louis XVI lifted price controls on grain, sparking the “Flour War,” and sending the price of bread in France skyrocketing, igniting over 300 civil disturbances around the country.

Parmentier came to the rescue, crusading to encourage people to eat potatoes. Among his more creative stunts was to host an all-potato dinner — every dish served was a different, inventive preparation of potatoes — for the cream of Parisian high society. Thomas Jefferson was among the guests. He enjoyed one of the courses in particular and brought the recipe back to America.

Yep, French fries. Thank you, Thomas Jefferson.

The potato is the world’s fourth largest food crop, after rice, wheat and maize. For good reason.

If you are looking for a healthful potato preparation which combines the best flavors and textures of fries, baked potatoes and your other favorite potato dishes, try this recipe for Smashed Potatoes. You will thank me forever.

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Seth Freeman, MPH, is an Emmy-winning writer/producer for television, a playwright and a journalist, who writes about technology, policy and public health.

Seth Freeman, MPH, is a journalist, a playwright, and an Emmy-winning writer/producer of television, who created the series Lincoln Heights.

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