Potato Salad(119925)
Credit: Rachel Ham

Ancient Americas

7000 years of potato history

Potatoes, related to the chili pepper, tomato, and tobacco[5755], are indigenous to the moist, cool soil of Central and South America. Potatoes are an ancient food; archaeological evidence of them has be found in Chile and Peru dating from 5000 BC. The Incas not only ate potatoes, they buried them with the dead as a means of sustenance in the afterlife.[5762] Chuñu, freeze-dried potatoes, was the Incan way of keeping potatoes for year.  First, frozen potatoes were trampled on, like grapes in ancient Rome, to get rid of excess water. Then, the mashed up potatoes were sun-dried to make potato flour.[5763] The ancient Quechuan word for potato is papa, still used by Spanish speakers the world over. 

Spanish Conquistadors and Potatoes

Bringing a New World staple to the Old World

Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesda brought the potato to Spain in the mid 16th century.[5754] Shortly thereafter, potatoes, a good source of vitamin C, became a staple on Spanish ships to prevent scurvy. We get our word, potato, directly from these conquistadors. Potato comes from Spanish patata which is a transliteration of the Caribbean batata or sweet potato.[5755]

Like many other New World Foods, potatoes were not readily accepted by the Europeans. People were afraid to eat vegetables in the nightshade family that includes many extremely poisonous plants.[5754] Potatoes were thought to be not ony poisonous, but downright evil. They were accused of causing leprosy, syphilis, even death.

Potato FlowerCredit: Rachel Ham

Potato Flowers Photo Credit: barockschloss on Flickr

A tale is told of the famous Englishman, Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1589, he brought potatoes to Ireland and planted them at his estate near Cork. At a feast, featuring potatoes, the cooks were not well-versed in potato cookery. They cooked the leaves and stems and threw away the roots. Unfortunately, potato leaves and stems are poisonous, and many guests of the feast grew ill, even deathly ill. As a result, potatoes were banned from court.[5761]

Potatoes were considerd food fit for hogs, not humans. Because of the ease of growth and hardiness, potatoes were usually eaten only by the poor and peasants.

The potato finally catches on in Europe

Thanks to a French botanist and an English scientist

Widespread European acceptance of the potato is due to the schemes of two gentlemen: one a French botanist, the other an English scientist. The French botanist was Parmentier, who survived on a diet of mostly potatoes as a prisoner of the Prussians during the Seven Year's War.[5754] By 1772, Parmentier had convinced the Paris Faculty of Medicine of the nutritional value of potatoes, rich in energy and vitamin C. Still, people didn't think much of the tuber. Along cam Parmentier's scheme: people could "steal" them from King Louis XVI's potato beds once the guards left at night.[5762] His tireless efforts at promoting the potato paid off; in fact, many French potato dishes include the name Parmentier.

Sir Benjamin Thompson, aka Count Rumford, was an American-born physicist and member of the Royal Society. While stationed in Bavaria, he pushed for the cultivation of potatoes. He also invented Rumford's soup, a thick potage of potatoes, barley, peas, and vinegar that was quickly adopted by German peasants as a satisfying and inexpensive dish.[5762]

Irish Potato Famine

A nation is destroyed by a fungus

Famine (1997) on the Custom House Quay in DublinCredit: Rachel Ham

Famine (1997) on the Custom House Quay in Dublin - commemorating the Irish Potato Famine Photo Credit: infomatique on Flickr

Once the potato caught on in Ireland, it became the universal food, probably because it is hardy, inexpensive, and easy to grow. By the mid 1800s, Irish peasants ate 5-10 pounds of potatoes each day![5755] But mono-cropping, planting one crop to the exclusion of all others, has its downside - disease. The Great Potato Famine of 1845-49 was the result of an infestation by the airborne fungus, Phytophthora infestanis, that probably blew onto the island from New World ships.[5754] The infection spread rapidly. A single plant could spread the fungus to thousands of potato plants in a matter of days. The blight's impact was huge; more than one million people died and hundreds of thousands emigrated to other countries, including the US.[5762] By 1850, the Irish made up 43% of all US immigrants.

Burbank Develops the Russet Variety

Idaho becomes the potato capital of the US

Idaho Russet PotatoesCredit: Rachel Ham

Idaho Russet Potatoes Photo credit: BrownGuacamole on Flickr

The first potato was planted in Idaho in 1836 by a Presbyterian missionary named Henry Harmon Spalding.[5761] Spalding wanted to bring Christianity to the Nez Perce tribesmen. He felt it necessary for people to be able to feed themselves, thus the agricultural emphasis and the introduction of potatoes.[5764] Still the potato did not take off as the premiere vegetable crop until 1872. Horticulturalist Luther Burbank developed a fungus-resistant variety.[5754] Burbank took the russet potato to Ireland to re-establish its decimated potato crops. He named the new potato, Burbank, and sold the seedling for $150. With that money, he headed to California, along with ten stock Burbank potatoes. From those ten potatoes, he had produced more than 6 million bushels of potatoes by 1906.[5764] The russet potato is a mutated version of the original Burbank variety.

The real catalyst for Idaho's potato industry was gold. Gold was discovered in 1860 in Idaho. The miners were fed on, you guessed it, potatoes. By 1875, Idaho was already exporting potatoes to other states.[5764] Becauce of its ideal growing conditions (high altitude, warm days, cool nights, light volcanic soil, and irrigation), Idaho has lead the nation in potato production for the past 50 years.

Despite its long road to acceptance, the potato now leads all other vegetables in worldwide production. In the US, we eat about 1/3 lb of potatoes every day,[5755] a far cry from the 10 lbs eaten by Irish peasants in 1845, but still a lot of spuds.