The potato is not simply the vegetable that made Idaho famous. It is a global phenomenon. The potato is the fifth most important crop in the world, behind sugar cane, corn, wheat and rice.
If we count the European Union as a single entity, the United States is in sixth place as a potato producer. Producing roughly 20 million tons of potatoes annually (2016 figures), the U.S. follows the Ukraine at 21 million tons, Russia at 31 million, India at 43 million, the E.U. at 56 million and China at a whopping 99 million tons.
Archeological evidence suggests that the potato was first domesticated in Peru and northwestern Bolivia some 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. Spanish Conquistadors, searching for gold in Peru, discovered that the diet of the native Incas relied heavily on this tuber, which grew in the mountainous valleys of the Andes, the longest mountain range on the planet. It wasn’t long before the plant had been introduced to Europe. It spread slowly through Europe. Many were reluctant to try it as food. Some believed that it caused diseases like leprosy and syphilis. Others simply found it bland.
The French Philosopher Denis Diderot in his Encyclopedia (1751 – 65) complained that “No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy.” He grudgingly acknowledged one saving grace in the potato. As he put it, “It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.”
Indeed, the potato is loaded with carbohydrate energy, and, as a tuber, it is much more productive and resilient than major grains. While discovery of its culinary virtues was slow in coming, Europe recognized quickly its supreme value as a reliable food source. Few plants can be credited with changing the course of human history, and the humble potato is at the head of that short list.
Science writer Charles C. Mann provided a riveting account of this story for the Smithsonian Magazine (November 2011), entitled “How the Potato Changed the World.” A major turning point came in the last half of the 18th century with an early pioneer in nutritional chemistry, the French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. Mann describes Parmentier as the “potato’s Johnny Appleseed,” and the comparison is apt. Parmentier had been captured by the Prussians five times during the Seven Years War, and during his imprisonment lived on little but potatoes. He was astounded that his health remained good throughout his bouts of captivity. He spent the remainder of his life promoting the potato as the solution to the constant threat of famine.
When King Louis XVI lifted price controls on grain, it triggered what came to be known as the Flour War. Parmentier proclaimed that “France would stop fighting over bread if only her citizens would eat potatoes.” At one of his parties to introduce nobles to the potato, one of his guests was Thomas Jefferson. The story goes that Jefferson was so excited that he introduced french fries to the American colonies.
As Europeans embraced the potato, it changed life on the continent. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, famine was a familiar presence throughout Europe, and the people “teetered on a precipice.” As Mann observed, “By the end of the 18th century ... roughly 40 percent of the Irish ate no solid food other than potatoes;” and “the figure was between 10 percent and 30 percent in the Netherlands, Belgium, Prussia and perhaps Poland. Routine famine almost disappeared in potato country, a 2,000-mile band that stretched from Ireland in the west to Russia’s Ural Mountains in the east.”
In a future column, I will discuss the vulnerability of the potato to disease, which has led to nightmarish devastation, as it did in the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. That blight took the lives of over a million citizens and forced countless others to leave their homeland in the Irish diaspora. This vulnerability erodes but does not erase the importance of the potato in the global fight against starvation.
As Mann argues, before the introduction of potatoes and corn to the European diet, “European living standards were roughly equivalent to those in Cameroon and Bangladesh today. The food revolution that began with potatoes allowed the human population to climb “from fewer than one billion in 1700 to some seven billion today.”
Potatoes continue to feed the world, but their humble origins are often forgotten as Michelin starred chefs create mouth-watering approaches to the potato. From Gordon Ramsay’s Fondant Potatoes, to Heston Blumenthal’s Pommes Purée and Nuno Mendes’ Charred Rainbow Trout and Potato Noodles, potato dishes now hold a place of distinction at gourmet restaurants across the globe.