Potato history, as we can trace it, begins in the Andes mountains of South America. Today, the potato is so common and plentiful in the Western diet that it is taken for granted. We can easily forget that the history of the potato is woven through many cultures and circumstances.
In the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile potato history has its beginnings. Archaeologists found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C.
Pre-Inca cultures, and later the Incas, bred special frost-tolerant potato plants suited to high altitudes. These potatoes had a high glycoalkaloid (not easily affected by freezing temperatures) content.
The Incas dehydrated and freeze-dried these potatoes, using the freezing night temperatures and the hot sunshine of the daylight hours. These potatoes, called chuño, were stored for use by their armies and as a provision against famine. They are still processed and eaten in a similar way today.
Another chapter in potato history begins with the Spanish conquistadors encountering the potato when they arrived in Peru in 1532 in search of gold. Pedro de Cieza de Leon (1518–1560), Spanish Conquistador and historian, wrote about potato history in Ecuador in his Chronicles of Peru:
"In the vicinities of Quito the inhabitants have with the maize another plant that serves to support in great part their existence: the potatoes, that they are of the roots similar to the tubercoli, supplies of one rind more or little hard; when they come bubbled they become to hold like the cooked chestnuts; seccate to the sun call to them chuno and they are conserved for the use."
Instead of the gold he had come to find, Spanish explorer Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada advanced potato history when he took the potato to Spain. Potatoes soon became a regular provision on Spanish ships. A benefit was that sailors who ate papas (potatoes) did not suffer from scurvy.
The history of the potato expanded into more of Europe when John Gerard (1545-1612), a British author, gardener, and collector of rare plants, received roots of the potato plant from Virginia and successfully grew it in his own garden. He wrote in his book The Herball:
"The potato of the Virginia has many coppers flexible cables and that crawl for earth... The root is thick, large and tuberosa; not much various one for shape, color and sapore from common potatoes (the sweet potatoes) but a smaller Pò; some are round as spheres, other ovals; the some longer other shortest ones... It grows spontaneously in America where, as Clusius has reported, it has been discovered; from then I have received these roots from the Virginia otherwise Norembega calls; they grow and they prosper in my garden like in their country of origin... Its correct name is cited in the title it. Poichè it possesses not only the shape and the proportions of potatoes, but also their gradevole sapore and virtue we can call them potatoes of the America or Virginia."
Potato history soon included Italy and England around 1585, Belgium and Germany by 1587, Austria by 1588, and France around 1600. Wherever the potato was introduced, however, it was first considered strange, possibly poisonous, and sometimes evil.
In France the potato was believed to cause leprosy, syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterillity, and perverse sexuality. It was said that the potato would destroy the soil in which it grew. In the town of Besancon, France an edict was issued: "In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it."
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), British adventurer known for his expeditions to the Americas, established potato history in Ireland. He planted potatoes at his Irish estate near Cork, Ireland. Legend says that he made a gift of the potato plant to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603).
There is a great story about potato history in England. It is said that invitations were issued to a royal banquet featuring the potato at every course. Unfortunately, the cooks were uneducated about the preparation of potatoes. They threw out the lumpy tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled stems and leaves, which are poisonous. Everyone that had eaten at the banquet became deathly ill. Potatoes were banned from court.
An Irish legend says that ships of the Spanish Armada, wrecked off the Irish coast in 1588, were carrying potatoes and that some of them washed ashore.
Potato history is relatively short in the United States. Potatoes were introduced several times in the 1600s but not grown extensively for almost a century. In 1719 potatoes were planted in Londonderry, New Hampshire, by Scotch-Irish immigrants. From there the popularity of the potato as a food crop became accepted and spread across the country.
Some potato history from 1771 highlights the future of the potato as it impacts world food supplies. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French military chemist and botanist, won a contest sponsored by the Academy of Besancon to find a food "capable of reducing the calamities of famine." His study of the potato was called Chemical Examination of the Potato.
According to historical account, he was taken prisoner five times by the Prussians during the Seven Years' War and forced to survive on a diet of potatoes. He also served dinners at which all courses were made of potatoes. Many French potato dishes still bear his name.
In 1785, Parmentier persuaded Louis XVI, King of France, to encourage cultivation of potatoes. The King allowed him to plant 100 useless acres outside Paris, France in potatoes with troops keeping the field heavily guarded. This aroused public curiosity and the people decided that anything so carefully guarded must be valuable. One night Parmentier allowed the guards to go off duty, and the local farmers, as he had hoped, went into the field, confiscated the potatoes and planted them on their own farms. From this small start, the habit of growing and eating potatoes spread.
It is said that Marie Antoinette, Queen of France who married Louis XVI, often pinned potato flowers in her curls. Because of her, ladies of the era wore potato blossoms in their hair as well.
Russian potato history took even more longer to get under way. Peasant farmers refused to have anything to do with the potato until the mid 1700s. At that time Frederick the Great sent free potatoes to the starving peasants during the famine of 1774. They refused to touch the potatoes until soldiers were sent to persuade them.
Although potatoes are grown throughout the United States, no state is more associated with potato history in the U.S. than Idaho. Potatoes were first planted in Idaho by Presbyterian missionary, Henry Harmon Spalding. Spalding founded a mission at Lapwai in 1836 to bring Christianity to the Nez Perce Indians. He wanted to prove that the Indians could provide food for themselves through agriculture rather than hunting and gathering. Spaldings first potato crop was a failure, however the second year yielded a good crop.
The "Irish Potato Famine," or "Great Famine" in Ireland was caused because the potato crop became diseased. At the height of the famine, around 1845, at least one million people died of starvation. This famine left many poverty stricken families with no choice but to struggle for survival or emigrate out of Ireland. Towns became deserted, and all the best shops closed because store owners were forced to emigrate as there were no jobs. More than one and a half million people left Ireland for North America and Australia. Within a few years, the population of Ireland dropped by half, from about 9 million to little more than 4 million.
According to Cecil Woodham-Smith's book, The Great Hunger Ireland, 1962: "Cooking any food other than a potato had become a lost art. Women hardly boiled anything but potatoes. The oven had become unknown after the introduction of the potato prior to the Great Starvation."
Most Americans considered potatoes as food for animals rather than for humans well into the middle of the 19th century. The Farmer's Manual recommended that potatoes "be grown near the hog pens as a convenience towards feeding the hogs."
It was not until the Russet Burbank potato was developed by American horticulturist Luther Burbank in 1872 that the Idaho potato industry really took off. Burbank, while trying to improve the Irish potato, developed a hybrid that was more disease resistant.
He introduced the Burbank potato to Ireland to help combat the blight epidemic. He sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150.00 which he used to travel to Santa Rosa, California. In Santa Rosa, he established a nursery garden, greenhouse, and experimental farms that have become famous throughout the world.
If you are interested in an in-depth look at potato history, read A Potato Chronology by Richard E. Tucker
Fun With Potatoes - Mr. Potato Head
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