Edible histories: potatoes

Categories: History of food

How a simple tuber caused population growth, national tragedy and an industrial revolution

Words: Mark Riddaway

Such is its familiarity, it’s strange to think of the potato as an item of vast, world-historical importance. But since first crossing the Atlantic from South America less than 500 years ago, the humble spud has been a cause of dramatic social change and deep national tragedy, a driver of population growth and a launch-pad for the industrial revolution.

To say that the potato changed the world is no more insane than to suggest it might be rather tasty deep fried and drizzled with vinegar.

The story of the spud begins in the Andes Mountains, where the bitter, toxin-filled tubers that grow wild throughout the region were successfully bred into the palatable, cultivated varieties that became a staple food of the Inca Empire.

Great British hero
We all know, of course, that the great British hero Sir Francis Drake brought the potato to Europe. Or perhaps it was Sir Walter Raleigh. In fact, Raleigh never went near South America. Drake, despite encountering potatoes on an island off the coast of Chile in 1578, sailed home via the Pacific, arriving in Plymouth two years later, by which time any spuds in his hold would have been rotten.

Instead it was the Spanish, whose ruthless conquistadors arrived in the Andes in 1532 to exchange Inca gold for Iberian smallpox, who can claim credit for this world-changing import. Exactly when and how the potato arrived in Spain is hard to pinpoint—it was, after all, somewhat overshadowed by all that gold.

According to John Reader, in his thoroughly absorbing Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, potatoes were being produced in commercial quantities on the Canary Islands by 1567 and in mainland Spain by 1573.      

A wild aphrodisiac
All around Europe, people acted with great suspicion towards this strange, bulbous hunk of starch. Wild rumours abounded as to its less attractive properties: to some it was a cause of leprosy, to others a wild aphrodisiac or a dangerous harbinger of Roman Catholicism (“No Potatoes, No Popery!” was an election slogan in Lewes, East Sussex in 1765).

But despite consistent scaremongering, the potato would eventually silence its doubters—even those who insisted it caused flatulence. As the French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote, “What is windiness to the strong bodies of peasants and labourers?”

And it was strong bodies that this tuber could promise the people of Europe. The potato is an agricultural marvel: a field of spuds can easily yield four times as many calories as a field of wheat, often more. It is packed with carbohydrate, protein and vitamin C and contains useful quantities of calcium, iron, potassium and B complex vitamins. It can survive rain and heat and frost.

Special skill
Unlike a cereal crop, it requires no special skill or equipment to turn it into food. And when an army comes marching through, a field of potatoes is far less vulnerable to sequestration or destruction than a store of grain.

Until the arrival of the potato, terrible famines were a regular feature of European life. After the arrival of the potato, such bouts of destructive hunger appeared to be consigned to the past. According to the historian Christiaan Vandenbroeke, “for the first time in the history of Western Europe, a definitive solution had been found to the food problem”.

British farmers began harvesting potatoes in large quantities by the end of the 17th century, especially in the north-west and Wales, and it caught on even more quickly in Ireland. With venal English landlords controlling vast tracts of Ireland’s most productive agricultural land, the produce of which was shipped back across the Irish Sea, this nutritious foodstuff proved a godsend.

Early adopters
The Belgians were early adopters, as were the Germans. By 1744, Frederick the Great was distributing free seed potatoes around Prussia and ordering his peasants to plant them. However the French, as is their wont, remained resolutely snobbish about this weird foreign vegetable until the end of the 18th century.

That they adopted it at all was largely down to the efforts of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a pharmacist who, after being captured by the Prussians during the Seven Years’ War and fed nothing but potatoes in prison, became convinced of their miraculous qualities.

While France convulsed with pre-revolutionary bread riots, Parmentier worked tirelessly to promote the potato as a cure for mass hunger and civil unrest. His relentless PR campaign won him the triple distinction of being honoured by Louis XVI, becoming a hero of the French Revolution and laying the foundations for the decadent, creamy perfection that is gratin dauphinois.

Nutritious new staple
Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, Europe experienced an unprecedented population surge—from 140 million in 1750 to 266 million in 1850. Quantitative analysis has proved beyond any doubt that the continent’s nutritious new staple was a massive factor in this boom, the consequences of which were vast.

Without a large, healthy labour force, the British industrial revolution could not have taken place—factory owners sucked up the surplus population, fed them nothing but cheap spuds and invested the resulting profits into ever greater innovation and expansion.

There was, however, a problem. Almost all European spuds were clones of the original seed potatoes brought back from the New World in the 16th century. When a deadly fungus first emerged in Flanders in June 1845, capable of rapidly rotting entire fields of potatoes, this lack of genetic diversity meant the threat became an existential one.

Brutal consequences
By September the blight had spread through Britain, and by mid-October it had reached Ireland—with brutal consequences. At the time, almost half the Irish population ate no solid food but potatoes. When the nation’s potatoes died, so did its people.

The privations of the Great Famine, which lasted for seven dreadful years, remain deeply embedded within the folk memory of a country whose people starved in their millions or were forced to emigrate in a desperate bid for survival. In 1841 the population of Ireland was 8.41 million; today it is still only 6.4 million.

After the potato blight, botanists flocked to the Andes in search of new wild or cultivated varieties for breeders to draw upon, and the result has been an ever-growing pool of tubers—waxy, floury, of every size, shade and shape—adapted for different growing conditions, seasons and culinary uses.

Stupidly delicious
Potatoes played a huge part in Borough Market’s 20th century heyday as a vast hub for fruit and vegetable wholesalers, with the spud being far and away its most plentiful commodity. They’re being sold here by the bagful today, from nutty Jersey royals to floury King Edwards, no longer an item of great novelty or world-changing potential, but still stupidly delicious after an hour in the oven.