The Potato Trail

Let’s talk about potatoes. Taters. Spuds.

The potato is such a common and versatile vegetable that it’s difficult to imagine a world without it. Can you picture a world where hamburgers weren’t served alongside their sidekick, the french fry? A world without mashed potatoes, hash browns, tater tots and curly fries. And possibly worst of all… a world without potato chips!

It’s almost inconceivable.

So it comes as quite the shock to realize that there was a time before potatoes. A dark time once existed when the majority of the world lived without this delicious tuber. Today we explore the potato’s journey from obscurity to kitchen staple.

Tubers (1870) Edouard Maubert
Early history

Potato history goes way, way back. Around 8000 BC to 5000 BC, the indigenous people of what is now southern Peru and the northwest of Bolivia began to cultivate wild potatoes. The potato became their primary source of energy, and they prepared it in many ways familiar to us today, including baking and boiling. They also developed a history changing innovation: a freeze-dried potato that could be stored for years without refrigeration (sometimes decades!).

This product is called Chuño, and it is created by repeatedly freezing and thawing potatoes over the course of several days, and then extracting the water from the softened potatoes. This nearly imperishable potato product allowed for the development of the powerful Incan empire, feeding their population during times of bad harvests, and providing sustenance for their armies.

The first published potato
Herball (1597) by John Gerard
Europe and the potato

Europeans have existed in the Americas since Columbus’s arrival back in 1492. But it isn’t all that clear how aware they were of the potato until the mid 16th century, when mentions of potatoes begin to appear in historical documents. It is known that the 16th century Spanish viewed potatoes as a heavy, plain food for native laborers, and that they refused to eat the vegetable.

When potatoes did find their way to Europe in the later part of the 16th century (likely as seeds brought back by Spanish monks) it was almost certainly not for general consumption but instead to be used as a garden flower, and for medical purposes. It is known that the first occurrence of a potato being eaten in Europe was in a Seville hospital in 1573. Likewise, potatoes that the King of Spain, Philip II sent to the Pope, were passed on to his sick papal ambassador to the Netherlands.

It would take nearly a few hundred more years for potatoes to become commonly regarded as an edible (and worthy) crop in Europe. In many parts of Europe, potatoes were erroneously assumed to be poisonous and were nicknamed “devil’s apples”. To be fair, Europeans were completely unfamiliar with any plant similar to a potato, and since they couldn’t find biblical explanations for the plant’s oddities they deemed it evil. If a potato was buried, it would sprout another plant. If it was chopped up, a new shoot might grow from each piece. What sorcery was this? It couldn’t have helped that potatoes are part of the nightshade family of plants, and thus related to belladonna, hensbane and jimsonweed, deadly plants associated with necromancy and witchcraft.

It was primarily in Ireland that the potato really first took off as a foodstuff. Starting in the early 17th century the Irish began to cultivate the potato in mass, and the success of the potato crops lead to an enormous population growth. Unfortunately, Ireland’s dependence upon the potato as a monocrop created the conditions for The Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) in which over one million Irish died of starvation when potatoes were infected with a strain of potato blight.

Around 1750, France and Germany changed their approach to farming by converting fallow fields into potato fields. The peasant populations remained wary of the potato, but several famines in the early 1770s in continental Europe quickly dispelled anxieties. Facing starvation, peasants began to consume potatoes, discovering for themselves that the plant was safe to eat. Potatoes would rapidly become an important staple crop in Northern Europe.

King Frederick the Great of Prussia inspects a harvest
The Potato King (1886) Robert Warthmüller
America and the potato

The earliest historical record of potatoes grown in the United States is a crop grown in Londonderry, New Hampshire in 1719. The settlers in this town were of Scotch-Irish heritage, and they brought over knowledge of potato cultivation (and seeds) from Ireland. So, oddly enough, a vegetable which was first cultivated in the Andes mountains of South America took a long voyage into Europe (likely through Spain), became abundant in Ireland, and finally made it’s way back into the Americas. It’s a rather dramatic journey for the humble spud.

The cover image: Potatoes grow big in Iowa (1908) by William H. Martin. Public domain.

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