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Potato! - History

The history of the potato has its roots in the windswept Andes Mountains of South America. It is an austere region plagued by fluctuating temperatures and poor soil conditions. Yet the tough and durable potato evolved in its thin air (elevations up to 15,000 feet), climbing ever higher like the people who first settled the region.

The tough pre-Columbian farmers first discovered and cultivated the potato some 7,000 years ago. They were impressed by its ruggedness, storage quality and its nutritional value. Western man did not come in contact with the potato until as late as 1537 when the Conquistadors tramped through Peru. And it was even later, about 1570, that the first potato made its way across the Atlantic to make a start on the continent of Europe.

Though the tuber was productive and hardy, the Spanish put it to very limited use. In the Spanish Colonies potatoes were considered food for the underclasses; when brought to the Old World they would be used primarily to feed hospital inmates.

It would take three decades for the potato to spread to the rest of Europe. Even so the potato was cultivated primarily as a curiosity by amateur botanists. Resistance was due to ingrained eating habits, the tuber's reputation as a food for the underpriveleged and perhaps most importantly its relationship to poisonous plants.

The potato is a member of the nightshade family and its leaves are, indeed, poisonous. A potato left too long in the light will begin to turn green. The green skin contains a substance called solanine which can cause the potato to taste bitter and even cause illness in humans. Such drawbacks were understood in Europe, but the advantages, generally, were not.

Europe would wait until the 1780's before the potato gained prominence anywhere. About 1780 the people of Ireland adopted the rugged food crop. The primary reason for its acceptance in Ireland was its ability to produce abundant, nutritious food. Unlike any other major crop, potatoes contain most of the vitamins needed for sustenance. Perhaps more importantly, potatoes can provide this sustenance to nearly 10 people on an acre of land. This would be one of the prime factors causing a population explosion in the early 1800s. Of course, by the mid-1800's the Irish would become so dependent upon this crop that its failure would provoke a famine.

While in Ireland the potato gained acceptance from the bottom up, in France the potato was imposed upon society by an intellectual. Antoine Augustine Parmentier saw that the nutritional benefits of the crop combined with its productive capacity could be a boon to the French farmer. He was a pharmacist, chemist and employee of Louis XV. Parmentier discovered the benefits of the potato while held prisoner by the Prussians during the Seven Years War. He was so enamored by the potato that he determined that it should become a staple of the French diet. After failing by conventional means to convince Frenchmen of its advantages, he determined upon a surreptitious means of making his point.

Parmentier acquired a miserable and unproductive spot of ground on the outskirts of Paris. There, he planted 50 acres of potatoes. During the day, he set a guard over it. This drew considerable attention in the neighborhood. In the evening the guard was relaxed and the locals came to see what all the fuss was about. Believing this plant must be valuable, many peasants "acquired" some of the potatoes from the plot, and soon were growing the root in their own garden plots. Their resistance was overcome by their curiosity and desire to better their lot with the obviously valuable new produce.

Soon the potato would gain wide acceptance across Europe and eventually make its way back over the Atlantic to North America. As time passed, the potato would become one of the major food stuffs of the world. But not without a few bumps in the road. The 1840's saw disastrous potato blight. This terrible disease was caused by a fungus known as Phytophthora infestans. With the devastation of potato crops throughout Europe came the destruction and dislocation of many of the populations that had become dependent upon it. The Potato Famine in Ireland would cut the population by half (through both starvation and emigration). An effective fungicide was not found until 1883 by the French botanist, Alexandre Millardet.

Today, the potato is so common, plentiful and pervasive in the Western diet that it is taken for granted. We forget that it has only been with us for a few hundred years. For a new appreciation of the potato, check out our sections on its cultivation and preparation.

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For a great history read "The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World", by Larry Zuckerman. Visit Amazon.com for details:

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