Thursday, October 18, 2007

Solanum Tuberosum

A Short History of the Potato.

Though there existed a time of dispute as to the origins of the potato, it is today certain this unique and potent agricultural crop came from the new world. The ethno-botanical evidence narrows the point of origin to the great north-south Andes spine of South America. It appears to have been a staple food of the peasants before the European conquests.

When the Spanish first encountered the crop, they were only mildly impressed. Some specimens were transported back to Europe during the 16th century for study, but as it was considered a bland food, it failed to gain immediate appeal. There exists a kind of natural conservatism in peoples diet, and it takes some shaking up to introduce new foods to foreign lands. Nevertheless, there is some evidence from the diaries of the late 16th century which show a growing appreciation of this exotic species. Carolus Clusius, a Flemish Monk and botanist, did studies on the plant, and in Ireland, it established its famous foothold.

It is curious to consider what the ancient diet might have looked like before beans, maize, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkin and pineapple. Bland certainly, with lots of ale or wine to promote forgetfulness. I can scarcely imagine what the Italian diet consisted of before tomatoes...and I would guess the Irish were asking themselves in the late 1800's what exactly their diet was previous to the full scale assault of the potato...

Some of the early skepticism concerning this tuber was justified, but some was obviously not. As it belongs to the family of plants which include nightshades and the great modern killer tobacco, it was considered poisonous. Other considered it to be an aphrodisiac, still others thought it was a plant that produced an exorbitant amount of flatulence, and was therefore to windy. Of course, none of these amounted to a successful campaign against the potato, as we can see by looking at the modern global diet.

There are reasons why this particular crop gained universal popularity, primary being its toleration of extreme environments, and that it is anything but delicate, though that would be sorely disproven by the Irish potato famine of of the 1840's. It is not often that a single plant can cause bio-regional shifts in human population, but that was the case for Ireland. The Irish were the first to grab the potato in Europe, cultivating it only 100 years after the first Europeans arrived in the new world. For centuries the Irish peasant farmers developed a symbiotic relationship with the potato. One farmer could cultivate 1 acre of potatoes which would in turn feed 12 for a year. 1 lb of potatoes per day would offer a daily dose of vitamin C, Vitamin B, trace minerals, and easily digestible starch. What it lacked in Vitamins A and D was made up by the milk cow. It was a copasetic relationship, leading to a population growth in Ireland of several million.

By the 1840's, Ireland was vastly unprepared to deal with any interruption in its hand-to-mouth economy.In 1846, a fungus swept through the countryside, through 2/3 of all potato fields, and devastated them. The following year, Ireland had a 100% crop failure, leading to wide starvation and immense amounts of suffering. Between 1846-1849, 1.5 million people died. The population of the country fell from 9 to 6 million, either from forced immigration or starvation. The consequence of the wedding between the potato and Ireland was brutal, expatriation became for some the only option. America was one of the obvious destinations in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine, and for any American worth their ilk, they can immediately understand the importance Irish-Americans have played in the unfolding history of our country.

It is amazing what one plant can do, can cause. The potato, the Idaho Spud, French Fries (or, freedom fries if you are republican) (/snark), the Au Gratin revolution. It is a world cuisine, a staple of the poor, a food which we all love whether in chip or the much preferred smothered in pot roast gravy (you know what I mean). We are dependent on our food, and it in turn uses us as a means of its own evolution. Copasetic, symbiotic, beautiful, and at times devistating. The potato.


1 comment:

Mark said...

Much like many other everyday things, if you examine them in detail there's a lot of fascinating detail. Have you read Cod or Salt? Both are fascinating. I didn't know much details about the Irish Potato famine so it was interesting to read. As for my personal opinion, I agree with the first impressions :

considered a bland food