The Political Hot Potato

Vital. Maligned. Mysterious. How well do you really know the potato?

During the 16th century, Europeans fell in love with a number of exotic plants from the New World. But the potato wasn't one of them. It would take two centuries and a spectacular PR campaign for people to even consider eating the ugly vegetable. But once the potato took root, it determined the fortunes of nations as no other crop has ever done before.


Spanish explorers brought potatoes back from South America in the 1500s. They'd been introduced to the veggie by the Incas, who grew hundreds of varieties of spuds. But the tuber had few takers in Europe. Since God hadn't mentioned potatoes in the Bible, the clergy preached that the starch was the Devil's handiwork. Also, because the gnarly potato can look like a leper's hand, rumors quickly spread that potatoes caused leprosy. Needless to say, the talk did little to boost the vegetable's popularity.

While most Europeans wouldn't touch the potato, they didn't mind growing them to feed their livestock. Then something strange happened. During a series of failed harvests in the early 1700s, farmers watched in horror as many of their favorite crops died; meanwhile, the potato flourished. Rulers across Western Europe took note and began actively encouraging their people to cultivate potatoes, going so far as to hand out free seeds, along with pamphlets abut how to grow them. The Austrian government took a more straightforward approach: They threatened peasants with 40 lashes if they refused to convert to the potato.

Some countries began to embrace the crop, but France remained a holdout. Finally, in the midst of a terrible famine in 1770, the government got so desperate that it offered a prize to anyone who could find a food capable of curbing the problem. Agriculturalist and pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier won the essay contest for his rousing defense of the potato. Parmentier believed that the humble starch could prevent the masses from starving to death, and both the scientific community and the monarchy endorsed his ideas. But it would take more than a prize-winning essay to sway France's working class and its aristocracy, neither of which trusted the suspicious-looking, leprous root.


Parmentier was determined to save his countrymen, even if it meant tricking them into giving the potato a try. In 1785, he organized a series of promotional stunts to win public opinion. At a royal banquet, he served potato dishes to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette and presented them with potato flowers; the king pinned a flower to his lapel and the queen wore a garland in her hair. The occasion instantly sparked a passion for potatoes among the nobility, who were slaves to royal fashion.

Winning over the elite was simple; but Parmentier soon realized that regular folk weren't so easy to convince. The scientist redoubled his efforts to boost the potato's image, this time using even more creative tactics. He planted a field of potatoes just outside Paris and posted armed guards around the perimeter, rousing the curiosity of the locals. What crop could be so valuable that it needed armed soldiers to protect it? When the potatoes were ready to be harvested, Parmentier removed the guards, and the peasantry rushed in to steal what they could of the crop. The trick worked, and before long, the potato was loved by the whole country. The tuber's stock was on the uptick, but by that point, royalty had fallen out of vogue. A few years later, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed. Despite his affiliation with the monarchy, Parmentier outlasted them both. In 1802, he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by Napoleon for his work with the lowly potato.


Potatoes became so popular so fast that, by the close of the 18th century, they'd fueled their own population boom. Europe's numbers spiked, spurring famed British economist Thomas Malthus to make a grim prediction. Malthus believed that crops such as the potato would create a surplus population, and at some point, the population would outstrip society's ability to feed itself. In Mathus' bleak view, apocalyptic war and famine were inevitable.

While that hasn't happened yet, over-reliance on the potato was the near undoing of Ireland. By the early 19th century, potatoes had become essential to the Irish diet. Most of the nation's population was composed of poor tenant farmers, whose farms were so tiny that no other crop could provide enough sustenance for their families; it was potatoes or nothing.

But in 1845, disaster struck. Blight hit the potato harvests and wiped out half the crop. The following year, three-quarters of the crop failed, and for the next two years, almost no potatoes grew at all. Around one million people died in Ireland, either from starvation or disease, and another million emigrated to America and Europe to escape the famine. By the time the blight ended, Ireland lost one-quarter of its population.

Thankfully, during the past 150 years, both the potato and the Irish population have made a comeback. Today, the vegetable is once again reaching new markets, and thanks to "clean seed" technologies -where germ-free seeds are made readily available to farmers- blight is less likely. China is now the world's largest producer of potatoes, and one-third of all the world's potatoes are harvested in China or India. Potato consumption in developing countries is also increasing. While Europeans are still the heartiest potato eaters, ingesting around 190 pounds of potatoes per person per year, Latin America and Asia are quickly catching up.

In fact, the potato's stock only seems to be going up. As the prices of cereals and grains approach historic highs, the world is once again relying on the humble spud to provide food security to a volatile food market. And it's easy to see why food organizations are lining up behind it. The hardy staple needs less water and energy to grow than most crops; it's stacked with starch and vitamins; and the potato can be harvested just three months after planting. In an effort to further promote the crop in developing nations, the United Nations dubbed 2008 "The Year of the Potato." And while potatoes can only be part of the equation, keeping the hungry fed and Malthus' predictions at bay has become a big part of the vegetable's legacy -a far cry from the Devil's food and harbinger of leprosy it was once thought to be.


The article above, a portion of the special section Shocking Moments in the History of Food written by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, is reprinted with permission from the July-August 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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I'm still appalled by this revisionist history of the famine. Ireland was a NET EXPORTER of food for the entirety of the famine; or rather, the British ruling class at the time were. From the wiki page

''Cecil Woodham-Smith, an authority on the Irish Famine, wrote in The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845–1849 that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland as "the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation." Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine.[fn 4]

Christine Kinealy writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon and ham actually increased during the famine. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland. However, the poor had no money to buy food and the government then did not ban exports.[63]

The following poem written by Miss Jane Francesca Elgee, a well known and popular author, was carried in The Nation:[64]

Weary men, what reap ye? Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, Hunger—stricken, what see you in the offing
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
There's a proud array of soldiers—what do they round your door?
They guard our master's granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? 'Would to God that we were dead—
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.[65]
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