Last week, in anticipation of Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, I explained how the discovery of key foods in the Americas helped transform nutrition, cuisine, and health throughout Europe. And, ultimately, these discoveries impacted colonial and early America as well.
So, today, I’ll complete my series by looking at the “New World” discovery that saved much of the world from the brink of starvation…
The humble potato.
Ancient food from high in the Andes mountains
The potato actually originated in the Andes Mountains, where the altitude is high, the soil is cold, and the air is thin. The indigenous peoples grew potatoes and other crops at these high altitudes by building mountainside terraces and using irrigation.
But in the 1530s, Spanish explorers found the Incas growing potatoes in Peru, and they took the vegetables with them to Mexico. Then, in the late 1500s, Sir Francis Drake sailed to Cartagena (now Colombia) 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, the colonists had given up on life in Virginia. And they decided to simply sail back to England with Drake…and his boatful of potatoes.
Of course, this voyage created some confusion about the potato’s origins. In fact, even as late as the 1930s, many still mistakenly believed that the vegetable originated in Virginia.
Then, of course, there’s Ireland…
According to one legend, the potato first came to the Emerald Isle in 1588 (the year of the Spanish Armada) when a Spanish ship carrying the vegetable wrecked off the coast, and some of the tubers washed ashore.
But it’s more likely that the potato first came to Ireland the next year, in 1589, with Sir Walter Raleigh, another British explorer known for his expeditions to the Americas. We know with some certainty that Raleigh planted potatoes on his estate in southeast Ireland.
Then, by some accounts, he gave a potato plant as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I. It’s said that the queen then hosted a royal banquet featuring the potato. Unfortunately, the royal cooks had no experience with the lumpy-looking vegetable. So, they tossed out the tubers and served a dish of boiled stems and leaves to the royal table. But tragically, these parts of the plant are poisonous. So, everyone promptly fell deathly ill. And the queen banned them from court.
It wasn’t until the late 16th century that the Spanish finally found a way to make good use of potatoes as a food source…
They shipped them to the Low Countries, which they occupied at the time (now Belgium and the Netherlands), to supply King Philip II’s Flemish troops. From there, the potato quickly spread throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, the Rhineland, and Germany.
But it took almost nearly 200 more years for the lowly potato to gain wide acceptance in France…
The “earth apple” becomes an important food source in France
In 1771, the French Royal government announced a contest to identify a food that could replace cereal grains in the daily diet. The agronomist and military apothecary Antoine-Augustin Parmentier won the prize by naming the potato, which he called a pomme de terre, which means “earth apple.”
Parmentier had learned of the potato when serving as a French Officer in the Seven Years War during the 1750s. In prison, his Prussian captors had introduced him to the virtues of the potato as an inexpensive, portable food source.
King Louis XVI of France enthusiastically supported Parmentier’s promotion of the potato and allowed Parmentier to work in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris, which are still there. (Louis even took to wearing a waistcoat decorated with the attractive, little, bluish-white flowers of the potato plant.)
Of course, as the French Revolution approached, the country faced increasingly desperate food shortages and military necessities. So, the potato came to serve as an important staple in the French diet.
The French Revolutionary “Republican Cuisine” cookbook even contained a recipe suited to the times. It featured a potato ball made with some chopped meat, parsley, and onion called “potatoes, economical-style.” And it extended the day’s meat, like today’s “Hamburger Helper.”
Some believe Parmentier’s work with the potato also saved him from the guillotine. (Thankfully, most of the chopping he saw went into his Potage Parmentier, a classic French dish that combines potatoes, leeks, and chervil with cream, salt, and pepper.)
The potato also came to mean a great deal to Napoleon. Napoleon never could have moved military units and whole armies across Europe as quickly as he did without carrying along the potato as a food staple. Indeed, as the French saying goes, “une armée marche sur le ventre,” which roughly means, “an army marches on its stomach.”
The potato continues to influence history
Of course, the British and Prussians ultimately defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. But the potato remained a primary food source for much of Europe.
In Ireland, the potato helped temporarily resolve the country’s severe dietary deficiency. And it helped encourage population growth. But in 1845, Ireland’s potato crop began to fail due to a plant disease. Other parts of Europe experienced this crop failure as well. And millions were forced to emigrate, particularly to North America.
In fact, much of the growth in the U.S. during the middle half of the 19th century was a result of this immigration and political unrest in Europe.
But growth continued in the U.S. with the potato as a food staple—even among the wealthier classes. In fact, in 1853, a patron at a resort 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.”
Indeed, potatoes are a starch. But they’re far more nutritious than other starches. So, don’t let the pop Paleo craze keep you away from enjoying potatoes in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Just remember—most of the nutrients from potatoes are packed in the skin. So, when you do eat them, make sure you include the skin.
As for me, at this time of year, when cold weather sets in, I enjoy making a delicious potato dish called Gratin Dauphinois, which my French great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother often prepared, along with a roast on Sundays.
P.S. It’s true that potatoes present a variety of culinary possibilities, which I explained more thoroughly in the March 2019 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“No blarney here!”). I even provide one of my favorite recipes! So if you haven’t already, consider signing up today. Click here now!
“How the Potato Changed the World.” Smithsonian, 11/2011. (smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-potato-changed-the-world-108470605/)