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This Spud’s for You: The Story of the Potato
by Marjorie Dorfman

Who were the first people to cultivate potatoes? You may be surprised to learn it wasn’t the Irish. Read on and enjoy.

"…Food in America has become eatable, here and there extremely good. Only the fried potatoes go unchanged, as deadly as before." – Luigi Barzini, The Italians, 1964

Did you know that the first potatoes were cultivated in Peru some 4,500 years ago? That’s right; not the green land of Erin and leprechauns, but the mountainous regions of Peru, which were too cold for wheat or corn. The Incas developed frost-resistant varieties from wild tubers, called papaand they instituted a system of crop rotation to keep their potato fields fertile as well. They worshipped potato gods and performed rituals and sacrifices to ensure the success of the crop, which became the main source of their primarily vegetarian diet. Were these the bare beginnings of Mr. Potato Head and the "couch potato"? We may never know.

We do know that the Incas were eating potatoes long before the state of Idaho even existed, much less became the potato capitol of North America. The potato was so much a part of their lives that they even developed a technique for preserving them for storage by freeze-drying the tubers and removing the trapped moisture. The remaining white flour called chuno was lightweight and storable for up to four years. It is mixed with water and used even today to make bread. The Incas also brewed a kind of beer from potatoes called chica. I suppose that with a few sips, Montezuma and his men never met a potato they didn’t like. (I doubt if even with a few beers he would have said that of Cortez and the Conquistadores, and if he hadn’t trusted people as much as he did the potato, history might have told quite a different tale!

The first written record of a European encounter with a potato (one of the twelfth or thirteenth kind?) was penned in 1537 by a conquistadore named Castellanos. Along with the gold and plunder of the Incan civilization, they carried the potato (and probably more than a few Incan maidens) back to their homeland aboard their ships. At first the plant was treated with distrust and fear as some thought it was dirty, unholy and primitive. Its popularity soared when it was heralded as a powerful aphrodisiac. Herbalists insisted that the potato could cure everything from diarrhea to tuberculosis. Slowly but surely, it became accepted across Europe as monarchs such as Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and King William of Germany began campaigns to introduce potatoes to their empires. (They never did make them citizens.)

Originally, it was mistakenly believed that the potato was native to Virginia. John Gerard, a herbalist and gardener, claimed such in his book, Herbal, published in 1597. This unsubstantiated fact would remain unchallenged for 300 years and stemmed from Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe from 1577-1580. It was then that Drake encountered some friendly potatoes while gathering supplies on an island off the coast of Chile. On that same trip, he took on board a small group of starving Virginians and later it was assumed that the potatoes were associated with these passengers. I’ve heard of guilt by association, but potatoes! Come on, guys! That’s a horse of another color (or a yam or something like that).

It was not until 1663 that the potato was established as a field crop in Ireland. There is still a bit of controversy over who brought it there. Some say it was Sir Walter Raleigh, who at that time was not busy with his "Lost Colony" or posing on the covers of cigarette packs. Others claim it was Sir Francis Drake. Whoever he was, he did a good thing, (as Martha Stewart always says), for in Ireland the potato found a perfect growing climate. The Irish quickly embraced the crop as the common daily food and it became so popular that it was soon established as a national food. The name the name "Irish Potatoes" was given to them to distinguish them from sweet potatoes.

The French were originally very suspicious of potatoes. They gained acceptance there largely through the efforts of a pharmacist, Antoine Parmentier, who was imprisoned during the Seven Years War and gave credit to the potatoes fed to him in jail for his survival. In order to entice French farmers into harvesting the crop, he put guards in his potato fields by day and withdrew them at night. The farmers assumed that if the crop needed to be guarded then it must be important, and crept in at night to harvest the potatoes. Soon it was cultivated all over France. Was Parmentier influenced by P.T. Barnum or was it the other way around? Whether or not there is a sucker born every minute might now be a moot point, but there is certainly a potato consumed by someone somewhere every minute in the world today!

Today hundreds of varieties of potatoes abound throughout the world (beyond Idaho, even). In the United States, there are basically four types, including the Russet Burbank, the Long White potatoes, Finger potatoes and Round White and Red potatoes. The Burbank which is also known as the "russet" and the "idaho," is long and slightly rounded with a brown skin and numerous eyes. (If you feel they are watching you as you peel them, it’s not for me to say it’s only your imagination!) Their low moisture and high starch content make them excellent for baking and making French fries.

The Long White potatoes are of similar shape, but they have thin, pale gray-brown skins with almost imperceptible eyes. (Much better to work with if you are a bit paranoid like me.) They are sometimes called "White Rose" or "California Long Whites," after the state in which they were developed and can be baked, boiled or fried. The Finger potatoes are thumb-sized baby long whites. The Round White and Red varieties are medium sized and commonly referred to as boiling potatoes. Both have waxy flesh that contains less starch and more moisture than the russet or long white. They are great for mashed potatoes, roasting or frying.

In conclusion, the potato is a thing of joy, but to eat and not to behold. We love them and they love us back. Did you know that although vodka can made from anything that contains starch, the finer premium vodkas are made from potatoes? Whatever the process, the next time I see someone drinking a vodka neat or with soda on the rocks, I will turn and clink my glass in a toast. I will say with my head held high:

"Hey, Mac, this spud’s for you!"

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2004