|A BIT ABOUT THE POTATO
The potato is rarely given credit for the miraculous, nutritious food that it is. Almost fat free, packed
with vitamins C and B, high in fiber, it is also rich in iron and potassium. One man lived solely on
potatoes for 300 days without any ill effects. This under-valued food was known to the South
American Indians of the Andean plateau well before 6000 BC. They also developed a freeze-dry
method to preserve potatoes long before "Birds Eye" invented the modern frozen food process after
observing the Eskimos food preserving methods.
Today Andean farmers cultivate 3000 of the 5000 varieties of the eight species. The potato was
unknown to the rest of the world until Spanish Conquistadors began their conquest of South America.
The potato has made important contributions to world history; at least one war was named after it, it
caused starvation in one country, in another it accelerated immigration, in France it required a gigantic
hoax to convince the people it was a desirable food, and Henry Ford studied the many potential uses
for this complex item.
Until Conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered what is modern Peru in 1530, the potato was unknown
to the world. It was adopted for use on Spanish ships as a staple food, and by 1573 it was grown
commercially in Spain; but it still took over three centuries for it to become accepted around the world.
From Spain potatoes found their way to Italy where, by 1601, they were a common food.
Sir Francis Drake probably introduced the potato to England around 1586 after stopping in Cartagena
on the Colombian coast on his way to Virginia and England.
Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century, but they did not
catch on, possibly because he was inexperienced in the art of eating potatoes. He hosted a dinner
party to honor the potato and served them with every course. Unfortunately the guests and host ate
the vines and leaves instead of the spud. The following day the contorted stomachs created so much
bad publicity that potatoes were not grown in England for public sale until 1770.
The potato was used early in Germany, "Ein Nue Kochbuch" (One new Cookbook published in 1581
contained potato recipes. German acceptance of the potato was not complete even a hundred years
later, when William Fredrick ordered the peasants to plant potatoes or have their ears and noses cut
off. The Austrians and the Germans fought what became known as the "Kartoffel" war, or potato war.
Antoine Auguste Parmentier, a Frenchman who lived from 1737 to 1817, was a prisoner in Prussia in
1757 during the Seven Years War. While imprisoned he survived starvation by eating potatoes. When
he returned to France he tried unsuccessfully to induce his countrymen to include this earthy food in
their daily menu. Possibly many still believed there had been justification for banning the potato in
the province of Burgundy in 1619 because eating too many were said to cause leprosy.
In 1787, during a famine, Parmentier convinced King Louis XVI to allow him to use a plot of land on
the edge of Paris to grow potatoes. Knowing the resistance of the stubborn French peasants had to
eating potatoes, Parmentier persuaded the King to post guards around the potato field during the
day, and to withdraw them at night. He had correctly assessed the crafty peasants who evidently
reasoned that a crop guarded by the King's Soldiers must contain an exotic food. Soon potatoes were
growing throughout France.
His contributions to French 'cuisine' are revered to this day by the 'Academie Parmentier Grand Order
du Noble Tubecule', an association of gourmets and restauranteurs who honor and promote the
potato (pomme de terre, apple of the earth).
A fungus wiped out the potato crop in Ireland in 1845 and 1846, causing mass starvation in the
country and sending many Irish to the United States to settle permanently. Europe also had its
potato crop attacked by a fungus at the same time.
The potato is easy to grow and is a prolific producer. An acre and a half will produce sufficient
potatoes for a family of six for a whole year. They were a popular item with city dwellers and were
reasonably inexpensive compared to meat and bread. Around 1841 a price comparison of the three
items, when converted to US cents were approximately: 8 & 3/4 cents for a loaf of bread, 5 & 1/4
cents for a pound of meat, and 4 & 3/4 cents for 10 pounds of potatoes. Considering that a city
dweller's weekly wage at the time was less than $2.00, it is no wonder they were popular.
The potato did not reach the American Colonies until around 1719, and then most likely after being
brought over from Ireland. It arrived in Boston in 1719 and soon won its way into American stomachs.
While Benjamin Franklin was American Commissioner to France, Antoine Parmentier prepared a meal
for him that consisted entirely of potato dishes and included a liqueur made from potatoes.
French fries were introduced into America when Thomas Jefferson served them in the White House.
He had been introduced to them when he served in France.
In more modern times Henry Ford, who believed that the world would run short of oil, experimented
with making fuel from potatoes. He ordered potatoes grown especially for industrial use from Europe.
The project was dropped, but possibly he was just a few years ahead of his time.
There is a less cheerful side to our potato future, which is the concentration of the world production in
a few varieties that could be wiped out by a single disease. A potato bank has been established; let
us hope it will be able to operate fast enough if needed.
Enjoy your nutritious potatoes.
Potatoes are starchy vegetables and there are many good reasons for eating this wholesome nutrient.
They are low in fat and, contrary to belief, they are not necessarily fattening; each gram supplies 4
calories, less than half what a gram of fat supplies. Unrefined carbohydrates are filling, which is great
for those on a diet; they are also high in fiber. A Complex Carbohydrate, they have a high nutrient
content and along with other plant foods like grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruits are a source of fiber
in our diet.