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Potato: The Food that Changed World History

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Potato: Data and Facts

Potato is a food crop that rules the world. It is a major nutrition source and a versatile raw material used to prepare thousands of different and tasty dishes. It was in 7000 BCE that the inhabitants of the Andes mountains in South America began to cultivate potatoes. Globally, China is now the biggest producer of this crop. Potatoes provide us with 4 or 5 times more calories than any grain. Potatoes are a source of vitamin C and can give protection against the vitamin C deficiency disease, scurvy. One potato has more potassium than a banana. The history of potatoes parallels the history of modern civilisation in many ways.


Andean Potato

Potatoes originally came from The Andes Mountain ranges in South America. The discovery of the Americas brought many new food crops including potatoes to Europe and the old world. The Andean potatoes now differ from the potatoes we know, in size, colour, and diversity. The people of the Andean mountains adhered to their age-old varieties and cultivation practices while the rest of the world could refine them- creating hybrids for commercial cultivation over time. Andean potatoes are cultivated in the Andean mountain stretches of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, at high altitudes, and come in different shapes and colours. More than 5000 native potato varieties are cultivated in the Andes and the International Potato Centre in Peru has a live genome collection of 5000 native Andean potato varieties. Many wild potatoes in the Andes had the toxins, solanine and tomatine in them, making them inedible to humans. However, the indigenous wisdom had it that if one consumed these potatoes cooked in a gravy of water and clay, the toxins attached to the clay and passed out of the body without causing harm, through faecal matter. These poisonous potatoes are still consumed in Peru and Bolivia along with the clay.


Andean Potatoes

The Columbian Exchange

After the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492, the old world and the newly discovered world exchanged people, diseases, food crops, and ideas between them knowingly and unknowingly and this is referred to as the Columbian Exchange. The old world was Europe and the Eastern hemisphere as a whole. Along with many food crops such as sweet potatoes, Cassava, Maize, and peanuts, potatoes were part of this far-reaching exchange in history. Tobacco was another remarkable new world crop but that story is for another time. Europeans also brought the viruses and bacteria that infected them to the new world and infected the native people of the Americas who had not known these diseases- smallpox, measles, cholera and typhoid- creating another historic narrative of civilisational exchanges. That tale also is not part of the socio-political and economic history of potatoes that I am trying to outline here. The arrival of potatoes in the old world from the new world, social scientists say, caused an acceleration in population growth and urbanisation, and Ireland is a typical case study. Because potatoes provided better calories and nutrition to the masses at a cheaper price as compared to the diets that the ordinary people of the old world had. The old world’s staple menu was wheat and rye bread, turnips, and a few vegetables. Today, the old world people top the list of highest potato consumers.


Potato: The Super Nutrition Food

The Spanish introduced potatoes to Europe. The adaptability of potatoes to different climatic zones played a role in the growth of potato cultivation in Europe. Even when consumed as the only ingredient of one’s diet, potatoes can meet most of the caloric and nutritional needs of the human body, which made it a precious crop to fight poverty and food scarcity. The only vitamins that cannot be acquired from potatoes are vitamin A and D for which one might need to depend on milk or milk products. So, in theory, one can subsist with pretty good health parameters by eating potatoes and consuming milk. One estimate says that the population of the old world increased by 12% after the introduction of potatoes and that urbanisation increased by 47%. In other words, the mighty West rose high in the world also because it discovered potatoes.


Mashed Potatoes and Potato Fries

potato-the-food-that-changed-history

Evolutionary Advantage

The crops introduced to the old world from the new world had a greater advantage than their parent plants when growing in Europe and the eastern hemisphere. In the new soil and climate, they did not have to fight their natural predators because most of those pests and diseases were indigenous to the new world and left behind. This was a veritable evolutionary advantage for these crops. The tropics of the new world had more plant pests and diseases than the temperate zones. The transplanted crops thus had fewer hardships to endure in their host countries.


Potato and Malthusian Crisis

In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus, an English cleric and economist in a book that he wrote, warned the world that the increased food production that Europe was witnessing could lead to a population explosion, which in turn will nullify the good effects of the hike in production and lead to famine among the poorer sections of the society. This economic concept was named, ‘The Malthusian Trap’. The Irish potato famine proved him right.


Irish Famine: A Painting

The Irish Potato Famine

For a long period, the diet of the Irish constituted only potatoes and milk, breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in and day out, 365 days a year. In Ireland, potato-induced population growth can be quite palpable to any probing history or anthropology student. Eventually, the politics of bread and potatoes that Britain engaged in destroyed Ireland’s food security. In 1845, the potato crop failed in Ireland and across Europe because of blight, causing 1 million people in Ireland to die. Around 1.5 million people had to flee Ireland in search of food. The blight was caused by a water mold named Phytophthora infestans, which caused black and brown spots to appear on the potato plant succeeded by sudden wilting and rot. The Irish people were paying rent to the British and Protestant landlords for their land and once the crop failed, the landlords began evicting the peasants in thousands. Those who ate the rotting potatoes were infested with typhus and cholera. The diseased and the evicted both crowded in workhouses rendering the situation even worse. Entire villages were destroyed by the dance of death, unburied bodies rotting everywhere, and many survivors tried to migrate to America only to die on the ships, which later came to be called the ‘coffin ships.’ Britain’s political oppression of Ireland and its delayed response to the famine were criticised as the larger cause leading to the worst ever mass death in Ireland. So many dead, Ireland’s population dropped from 8 million to 5 million and the seeds of the Irish nationalism and extremism were sown in this famine that lasted 4 years.


Potato Harvest

potato-the-food-that-changed-history
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Guano and Potatoes

The Peruvian islands had another surprise in store for Europe. Guano, the semi-solid urine of Peruvian Pelicans, and deposited layer after layer on the islands off the coast of Peru turned into the new miracle fertiliser for the potato farmers. The Guano deposits of 150 feet in thickness covered most of these islands and big potato farmers in Europe began to export it. Guano thus became the first high-intensity fertiliser in the world and a harbinger of modern fertilised farming.


Potato Flowers

The potato flowers are purple and star-shaped. Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France (and the queen executed by guillotine by the French revolutionaries) used to put potato flowers in her hair. Her husband, Louis XVI the king, also grew fond of this flower from the new world and put them in his coat’s buttonhole. The king and the queen had wanted to popularise the cultivation and consumption of potatoes in their kingdom.

Antoine-Augustin de Parmentier, The French Physician Who Wanted Potatoes in French Diet, Showing Potatoes to Louis XVI

An 1886 engraving

An 1886 engraving

The Bavarian Potato War

In 1779, Frederick II of Prussia fought a succession war with Joseph II of Austria. The war was fought mostly as skirmishes and not a full-fledged war as both sides mainly tried to disrupt the food supplies to the other side. Very little actual fighting took place. This was why the war was called the potato war. It was also reported that as the food was short in supply, the Prussian soldiers spend most of their time foraging for potatoes.


Potato Flower

Vincent Van Gogh and Potato Eaters

‘Potato Eaters’, one of the most iconic paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, was inspired by the love that Van Gogh had for the peasants and the poor. With its dark tone and coarse strength, the painting reflects the lives, hardships, and the effortless community love of the simple souls depicted in it. The association of potatoes with poverty and village life is what inspired Van Gogh to paint this classic work of art.

Potato Eaters: Painting by Vincent Van Gogh

potato-the-food-that-changed-history

How to Eat Potatoes

To get the full nutritional benefits, it is advised to eat potatoes whole, including the skin. The most popular recipes that the world love are,

Mashed Potatoes (France/England)

Pommes Frites (Belgium)

Fish and Chips (England)

Poutine (Canada)

Raclette (Switzerland)

Steak-Frites (France)

Tortilla-de-Patata (Spain)

Vada Pav (India)

Kapsalon (Netherlands)

Potato Home Fries (USA)

Cheese Fries (USA)

Pie and Mash (England)


Potato Chips and French Fries

Potato chips are the insignia of modern American life and its ultimate raw material of capitalist production. It is mass-produced and is one of the most popular consumer products. Potato chips were invented by the Americans. The producers of potato chips claim that this food product supplies us with vitamin C, which is also true in a sense. A medium-sized potato can give us vitamin C equivalent to the energy need of half a day. However, the high-fat present in the potato chips cancels this argument and makes us want to resist this culinary joy. French fries, the world’s favourite potato snack, were invented in the 20th century. French fries are not French and the Belgians, who used to fry potatoes as early as the 1600s, could strongly lay a claim to a name. In the early 19th century, then US President, Thomas Jefferson, wrote down a note about “potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small slices”, but only by the 1850s did French fries capture the imagination and palate of America.

Thousands of professional and amateur cooks around the world continue to re-invent the taste of potato in the new experimental dishes that they introduce. How a modest food like potato took over the world and changed it presents a prism for us to see the evolution of our civilisation itself.

References

Production volume of potatoes across India from the financial year 2015 to 2020, with an estimate for 2021, statista.com

The 10 most important crops In the world, Eric Goldschein, businessinsider.com

The Columbian exchange: A history of the disease, food, and ideas, Nathan Nunn and Nancy Quian, Journal of Economic Perspectives, scholar.harvard.edu

Foods that changed history, Christopher Cumo, 2015.

Native potatoes from the Andes, Michael Hermann, cipotato.org

Interpreting the Irish famine, 1846-1850, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/SADLIER/IRISH/Famine.htm

How the potato changed the world, Charles C. Mann, Smithsonian Magazine.

Food history almanack: Over 1300 years of world culinary history, culture, and social influence, Janet Clarkson, 2014.

The Potato Eaters, 1885 by Van Gogh, vincentvangogh.org

How did French Fries get their name? Here’s all you need to know about the world’s favourite potato snack, Saumya Sharma, hindustantimes.com

Hundred most popular potato dishes in the world, tasteatlas.com


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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