Cynthia L. Nobles
Special to Food
Like many Americans, you probably order some form of potato with steaks and burgers.
It’s usually a given that this tuber will appear alongside your meatloaf and fried chicken, and your mama probably has a stack of cheese-stained potato casserole recipes she pulls out for special occasions.
So it should be no surprise that this ubiquitous side is the world’s No. 1 nongrain food product. And it’s considered history’s most important vegetable.
Around 5,000 B.C., humans domesticated wild potatoes in the South American Andean highlands between Peru and Bolivia.
Important to the Incan Empire, the potato was dehydrated by freezing on cold nights, thawing on a warm day and mashing into a substance called chuño. The resulting plastic-foamlike blobs, which could be stored up to 10 years, were excellent insurance against crop failure and also fed the Incan army.
Spanish Conquistadors encountered this member of the nightshade family in Peru in 1532, when they were searching for gold and noticed Incan miners eating chuño. (Nightshades, members of the Solanaceae family, contain a diverse range of alkaloids, which can be desirable, toxic or both.)
The hardy spud became a basic ration aboard Spanish ships and finally made its way to Europe around 1570.
It was the Spanish, too, who combined the Quenchua word “papas” (potato) and the Taino word “batata” (sweet potato) to come up with the name “patata.” (The sweet potato is only distantly related to the common potato, and is not a member of the nightshade family). The English later morphed the word “patata” into “potato.”
Although Spanish sailors had embraced the spud, in Europe, potatoes were first used mostly as food for livestock. Europeans knew enough about the infamous nightshade family to fear poisoning and, therefore, at first eschewed New World foods such as peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and potatoes.
Add in superstition that this oddly shaped veggie was a creation of witches and devils, and that it caused fevers, syphilis, sterility, leprosy and rampant sexuality, and it’s no wonder the potato was, for many years, a pariah.
Members of the aristocracy were first to recognize that the potato had high caloric value, could sustain nearly 10 people on an acre, and was easy to grow, especially when compared with finicky grains.
Consequently, in times of famine, which was often, this imported vegetable showed bounteous promise. But the higher-ups had a hard time convincing suspicious peasants that potatoes wouldn’t make them keel over.
Prussians received draconian discipline for not eating potatoes. Russia’s Catherine the Great ordered her subjects to begin cultivating potatoes, but she was largely ignored.
Trying to persuade the French lower classes to eat potatoes, King Louis XVI first wore the plant’s flowers in his buttonhole and Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair.
When that didn’t work, botanist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier suggested that King Louis resort to reverse psychology. A large field of potatoes was cultivated and was heavily guarded. But at night the king would send the troops away, and peasants, who naturally assumed anything worth guarding was worth stealing, made off with potato plants and set them in their gardens.
Legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato to Ireland in 1589 but, as throughout Europe, acceptance was slow. Then in 1740, the potato saved Ireland from famine, and the Emerald Isle soon became a one-crop country.
As most of us learned in grammar school, Ireland suffered drastically between 1845-1849, when the fungus Phytophthora infestans destroyed the country’s entire potato production. The “Great Famine” resulted in 1 million deaths from starvation, and forced more than 1.5 million Irish to flee to North America and Australia.
Because of reliance on this single food, in just a few years, the population of Ireland dropped by one-half.
Potatoes were introduced to the U.S. several times throughout the 1500s, but did not become fully accepted until 1719, when Scots-Irish immigrants grew them in Londonderry, N.H.
Idaho, the state we associate most with the potato, received its first plant in 1836, when Presbyterian missionary Henry Harmon Spalding taught the Nez Perce Indians how to grow them.
The Idaho potato industry really took off in 1872, when horticulturist Luther Burbank developed the Russet Burbank potato, a hybrid that was more disease resistant.
Today, the potato is loved worldwide. In 2010, overall production reached a phenomenal 324 million tons, with the U.S. cultivating 18.3 tons, and China leading everyone with 74.8 million.
It’s hard to believe that something we take for granted had such a hard time finding acceptance on Western tables. Who would have thought that we owe thanks to the likes of King Louis for our hash browns, tater tots and fries?
Sources: Root, Waverley, Food (1980); vegetablefacts.net; history-magazine.com; smithsonianmag.com; whatscookingamerica.net.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’ “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” Contact her at email@example.com.