Food for Thought
Revel in the world-changing power of the unassuming potato
Check your fridge. If you have a potato in there (or one in a dark cabinet), take it out. If you don’t, then stop reading this article, and go out and purchase a potato from your nearest local food market. You’re going to need it. For the best reading experience, find a Peruvian variety, or an exotic all-blue. Once you are back, lift the lumpy tuber to the light and examine it.
You hold in your hand a traveler from ancient centuries, the spoils of an empire, a one-time consort of no-less a person than Marie Antoinette, and a creator of the modern world.
Perhaps as long as 10,000 years ago, people living in the Andes mountains of South America came upon a hardy little tuber, rich in starch and energy, but laced with toxic solanine. Ever industrious, they discovered, first, that a mixture of clay and water would pull the poison from the tuber, and then that selective breeding could render the solanine a non-factor. When the Incan Empire arose in the 13th century, it was the potato that fueled its conquests and sustained its people. And when the Spaniards overran them two hundred years later, they saw the potato’s value and used them to feed their newly conquered slaves.
The potato then came to Europe, and although it was first greeted with suspicion due to its still-poisonous leaves and stalks, the nobility soon came around to its versatility and hardiness. Not to mention the lovely little blue-purple flowers that sprout in the springtime. Marie Antoinette was fond of wearing them in her hair and soon sparked a trend which was followed by a mystique. Some whispered that the plant could cure leprosy, others that it was a powerful aphrodisiac.
Within another century, the potato was propping up Europe just as it had the South American empires in its homeland. Its flexibility as a crop, able to be grown in great abundance with minimal land, and its energy-packed nature turned the tide against the famines that had beset the continent for centuries. Populations began to explode. Starvation seemed as though it would become a thing of the past.
If not for one small problem. The potatoes in the Andes were a variegated stew of genetic diversity, as they still are today (botanists have categorized over 5,000 varieties). The potato in Europe? Not so much. The conquistadores and explorers of the Americas had only brought back a few varieties. What’s more, one of the main advantages of the potato in Europe was that it could be grown easily from a cutting of the tuber itself without having to wait for the plant to go to seed. Farmers relied on this aspect as it simplified the process at several levels. But it also meant that most of the potatoes in Europe were essentially clones. They were remarkably consistent, which means that they had the same advantages and the same disadvantages from field to field; the same strengths and the same weaknesses.
The intercontinental traffic that brought the potato to Europe’s shores probably also brought its nemesis: Phytophthora infestans, a nasty little water mold that feeds on nightshades like tomatoes and potatoes. It is most likely that it secreted itself into a shipment of bird guano ironically intended as fertilizer for potato crops. In the New World, the disease’s spread, which results in shriveled, rotten crops, was limited by the sheer variety of potato breeds available, many of which had developed resistance to it. But the European potato had developed no such resistance, and in the ranks of the cloned monoculture of famine-beating tubers, P. infestans found its perfect victim.
In the 1840s, P. infestans decimated potato crops across the continent. Population growth slowed as people starved to death by the thousands. In Ireland, where the potato’s versatility had been a godsend for sharecroppers forced to make do with whatever parcels their landlords permitted them, a million people died, and two million more fled across the ocean to the Americas.
By the 20th century, enterprising farmers and scientists created the modern pesticide industry to successfully deal with P. infestans (and the potato bug that followed in its wake). Because of that and the guano fertilization invented to increase the potato’s yield, two things happened: The green revolution of the 1960s and ’70s ushered in an era of crop abundance; and an agricultural system dependent on pesticides created an ever growing list of problems that we must deal with. But such is history.
For now, things seem relatively quiet with the potato, and most of us now take it for granted. Just one more item to cross off the shopping list and cook up without thinking twice. But our increasingly globalized world and a sudden interest in smaller-scale farming and food diversity has brought more varieties of potato to our American lives than any time in the past. Russian fingerlings, purple majesty, all-blue and various land races from the Andes have joined the ubiquitous russet and red golds at growers’ markets and natural grocery stores. Why not take an extra moment next time you pick one up to wonder at the history in your hands?