The lowly potato saves the day

Last week, I explained how the discovery of “New World” foods by Spanish Conquistadors helped transform nutrition, cuisine, and health throughout Europe. And ultimately in colonial and early America as well.

Today, I’ll continue that train of thought with my series of Daily Dispatch articles leading up to Columbus Day that focus on Native American foods.

Last week, it was the tomato. This week, let’s look at the potato–another New World discovery.

The potato originated in the Andes Mountains, where the soil is cold and the air is thin. Indigenous peoples of the Andes grew crops at high altitudes by building terraces and using irrigation.

Spanish Conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizzaro, found the Incas of Peru growing potatoes. And the Spanish took the tuber vegetable with them on their conquests through Mexico.

Then, in the late 1500s, Sir Francis Drake sailed to Cartagena in the service of Queen Elizabeth I. He stocked his ship with potatoes and took them to Virginia, where English colonists were starving in a temporary settlement.

By the time Drake arrived in Virginia, the colonists had given up. They abandoned their settlement and sailed back to England with Drake…and the boatful of potatoes. This mercy mission to Virginia created some confusion about the origins of the potato. Even as late as the 1930s, many still believed that it originated in Virginia.

According to Irish legend, the potato first came to the Emerald Isle in 1588. Ships of the Spanish Armada carrying potatoes wrecked off the Irish coast. And some of the tubers washed ashore.

But it’s more likely that the potato first arrived in Ireland in the next year, in 1589.

Sir Walter Raleigh, another British explorer and historian known for his expeditions to the Americas, brought the potato to Ireland. He planted them at his estate in southeast Ireland. Then, by some accounts, he gave a potato plant as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I.

It is said the queen then hosted a royal banquet featuring the potato. Unfortunately, the royal cooks had no experience with potatoes. They tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers. And they brought out a dish of boiled stems and leaves to the royal table. Of course, these parts of the plant are poisonous. So everyone promptly fell deathly ill. And the queen banned them from court.

The Spanish found a way to use the tubers in the second half of the 16th century. They shipped them to the Low Countries (now Belgium and the Netherlands) to supply King Philip II of Spain’s Flemish garrisons. From there, the potato quickly spread throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, the Rhineland, and Germany.

It took almost 200 more years for the potato to make its way to France. In 1771, the country faced devastating famine and popular unrest. So, the government announced a contest to identify a food that could replace cereals in the daily diet. The agronomist and military apothecary Augustin Parmentier won the prize by naming the pomme de terre (“earth apple,” or potato).

Parmentier learned of the potato when serving as a French Officer in the Seven Years War. And in prison, his Prussian captors introduced him to the virtues of the potato as a food source. Frederick the Great of Prussia had already introduced Kartoffeln to his troops as a food highly fit for military duty.

Louis XVI enthusiastically supported Parmentier’s development of the potato. And he even allowed Parmentier to work in the Royal Botanical Gardens. King Louis also took to wearing a waistcoat decorated with the attractive bluish-white flowers of the potato.

Ultimately, the French Revolution established the potato as an important staple in the French diet. The country faced vast food shortages. And the “Republican Cuisine” cookbook contained a recipe suited to such times. It featured a potato ball made with a bit of chopped meat, parsley and onion. Called “potatoes, economical-style,” it extended the day’s meat, like today’s “Hamburger Helper.”

Parmentier’s work with the potato saved him from the guillotine. And thankfully, most of the chopping he saw went into his potage Parmentier. This classic French dish combines potatoes, leeks, and chervil with cream, salt, and pepper.

The potato came to mean a great deal to Napoleon. He could never have moved military units and whole armies across Europe as quickly as he did without the potato. Of course, the British and Prussians ultimately defeated Napoleon in 1815. But the potato remained a primary food source for much of the populations of Europe.

In Italy, the potato began to spread to areas affected by the Napoleonic campaigns.

In Ireland, the potato helped temporarily resolve the country’s severe dietary deficiency. And it helped encourage population growth for a time. But in 1845, the potato crop in Ireland failed due to a plant disease. This failure occurred in other parts of Europe as well. Millions were forced to emigrate, particularly to North America.

In fact, much of the growth in the U.S. during the second half of the 19th century was due to this immigration. And growth continued in the U.S. with the potato as a cheap, reliable food staple.

Its popularity continued to rise in the U.S. during the late 19th century. Even among the wealthier classes.

In fact, a patron at one of the resorts in Saratoga Springs, New York, repeatedly complained that the chef did not slice his potatoes sufficiently thin. Finally, in frustration, the chef sliced them so thin they became crispy chips. These popular potato chips became known as “Saratoga chips.” Of course starting in the 20th century, potato chips became a leading snack food.

Undeniably, the potato helped parts of Europe and the Americas avoid starvation. But today, unless you face outright starvation, I don’t recommend keeping the potato as a staple in your diet. Like white bread and white rice, potatoes essentially provide empty calories. Plus, your body metabolizes the carbohydrate content more like sugar.

The potato’s vitamins are contained mainly in the skin. So if you do eat an occasional potato, make sure you eat the skin. And skip the “Saratoga chips” altogether. To get some healthy fats, snack on a handful of nuts instead.