The history of potatoes – what we know and what we don’t know

Just as we eat today one of the world’s most common food products – potatoes – we hardly imagine what it was before they were perceived as the main food in the world. In fact, until about 500-600 years ago, the vast majority of mankind did not know them at all. We have hardly thought about how the modern world would look without them, but it ought to …

We will briefly present the history of potatoes, along with its most curious aspects.

There are more than 160 types of wild potatoes in the world, and most of them contain alkaloids. The first edible potatoes were cultivated by the Indians in Peru 4,500 years ago (according to some sources, up to 9,000 years ago). The native place of potatoes is the high plateau around Lake Titicaca in Peru, at about 3,800 meters above sea level, and its creators were the Aimara Indians. For the civilizations of this part of the world, potatoes quickly became one of the main foods and goods.

In the Nazca culture, potatoes were worshipped – bas-reliefs of a god were found, holding potatoes in each hand, vessels in the form of potatoes, even depicting their “eyes”. The Inca even had time units, based on the cooking time of potatoes. In some cases, potatoes have been used to solve litigation or to predict weather. In many of their funerals dried potatoes were left with the deceased – to have some “for the road.” In the Quechua language there are more than a thousand words to indicate potatoes and the products made by them.

The Quechua also has the oldest method for preserving them – drying by cold. Potatoes were left outdoors during the night and were covered with straw in the day so as not to be burned by the sun but instead to “sweat” – that is to say, to separate from their moisture without losing their nutritional qualities. Then the women literally trampled the potatoes to drain the rest of the water. It was followed by soaking them in a stream and drying under a shelter for about two weeks. Preserved in this way, the potatoes lasted up to four years.

Potatoes were presented before the European society for the first time in two completely separate cases – in 1570 in Spain, and in 1590 in England. Their widespread cultivation, however, did not take place until the beginning of the 19th century. Initially, they were mainly grown as a medical product, and only later enterprising traders and some kings began to encourage their cultivation as a major agricultural crop.

The first European, who knew potatoes, was the conquistador Pedro De Siez de Leon, in 1540, describing their drying out on the outskirts of Quito as the main source of livelihood for the local population.

In 1565, Gonzalo Jimenez De Kesada referred to potatoes in Spain as a compensation for the gold he had never discovered. The Spaniards initially thought the plant was a type of truffle, and called it Tartufo – where our name comes from. The English potato comes from the Aztec name of potatoes – “Potatl”. (Other Aztec Foods – “Tomatl”, “Chocolatl”).

One of the first applications of potatoes was to feed the Indian slaves of the Spaniards in Bolivia’s silver mines. Later on, potatoes became common food for sailors, as it was noticed that potato-eaters rarely suffered from scurvy.

For a long time in Europe, however people believed that potatoes originated from Virginia (one of their cultivated varieties originated from there, but rather later). In 1597, John Gerrard, an English gardener and herbalist, published his work ‘The Herbal’, in which he made a statement that has not yet been refuted, more than 300 years later.

Although one of the goods that were brought early from the New World, the potato was spreading slowly in Europe. It was faced with distrust, fear and superstition, it was initially grown only by keen gardeners as a decorative plant or as a medical nature. People dreaded potatoes for centuries, believing them to be unclean, unchristian, dirty and unhealthy plant. People in France, for instance, believed that eating potatoes would lead to leprosy, syphilis, scrofula, narcosis, early death and sterility and that their planting would destroy the soil. Gradually, however, people started using potatoes, mostly for medicinal purposes, since they believed it cured certain common diseases – from diarrhea to tuberculosis. At one point potatoes were even believed to be an aphrodisiac. One of the reasons for their difficult acceptance was the fact that the first potatoes brought to Europe were varieties, adapted to the short tropical days in the mountains of America, and in the long temperate days of our continent they gave a relatively small yield. It took about 150 years and a purposeful study in the XIXth– XXth century for them to become the indispensable product of today. Another 150 years were necessary to find disease-resistant varieties.

We owe the spread of potato crops to the efforts of some enterprising and free-thinking monarchs. In 1740, the Prussian King Frederick and the German King Wilhelm launched a campaign in which, potatoes and written instructions were sent to their provinces for their cultivation. Whoever failed to obey those instructions, was in danger of being de-nosed, Frederick’s orders provided.

The success of the plant, however, is attributed to its easy planting and surviving even without care, which in wartime was a certain advantage over grain crops. Moreover, potato fields would not lose their crops when an army passed through them.

Thanks to the war, to some extent however, they became popular in France. Antoine Parmentier, an educated pharmacist, was a prisoner of war for about two years during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) with the Germans. They treated him as an animal (giving him potatoes to eat). Owing his survival to them, he dedicated the years after his release to potatoes. He wrote a number of works and succeeded in convincing Louis XV in the usefulness of that variety. Although they managed to convince some of the educated people of their time (e.g. Benjamin Franklin), the enterprise encountered resistance from the multitude of farmers in the country. Then the king helped Parmentier, by giving him a few acres of land in the vicinity of Paris and a regiment of soldiers. Parmentier planted potatoes and the soldiers gave an armed guard on the fields for more than a month, thus causing the interest of the population. One night the guards were “accidentally” withdrawn, and as Parmentier hoped, local farmers stole the potatoes to plant them in their own lands (something that is guarded so well, may not be worthless).

In England, the largest spread of potatoes came after Napoleon, who blocked imports of food from the continent.

Most countries in Europe did not pay much attention to the new agricultural variety, as far as their crops already covered their food needs. This was not the case in Ireland, however, where the harsher atmospheric conditions were greatly contributed by the political environment. In the times of constant clashes between English rulers and local nobles, the farmers barely survived.

The most common beliefs of how potatoes were popularized in Ireland are two. The first is that they were thrown to the shore with the remnants of the Great Armada of the Spaniards. The more plausible one is of Sir Walter Reilly, a renowned explorer and seafarer, who planted the potatoes in his estate in Ireland (Myrtle Grove, Youghal), given to him as a gift by the Queen of England. Common belief is that during a visit of Elizabeth I, he offered her a banquet, ordering each dish to have potatoes. His plan to promote potatoes in this way, however, failed because of the ignorance of the chefs, who also cooked the potatoes leaves, which were poisonous and caused stomach upsets throughout the royal court. The Queen issued a decree for no more potatoes and much of the nobles followed her. (This story was probably fabricated, yet it is a fact that he planted over 40 acres of potatoes in that estate).

Potatoes were quickly accepted by the Irish. They yielded more produce than any other crop that survived the local climate and could not be destroyed by enemy troops. For the first time in the country there was a variety, feeding up to 10 people per acre of land. That is why Ireland became the first country in Europe, where potatoes became the main food of the population. Some poorer regions relied solely on this kind of variety for its survival. Thanks to the significant improvement in nutrition, the Irish, from 2.5 million in 1,500 became nearly 9 million in 1840. And then happened what could be expected in such a dependency – a disaster. It was caused by a fungal disease on the potatoes, destroying three consecutive crops. As a result of the hunger for three years, the population of Ireland had fallen by half, with one million dead by starvation and more than three million emigrated because of the hunger. What a disappointment it was for the newcomers to the New World to find out that potatoes also got the illnesses there …

Interestingly, potatoes spread to North America, brought by the Europeans themselves, although they had already been known to Mexican Indians. In 1613 the English sent potatoes to their colony in Bermuda. Nine years later, the governor of Bermuda sent his colleague to Virginia two cases of potatoes. In New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island and other colonies in 1719, potatoes were distributed, not without the participation of Irish and Scottish settlers. Thomas Jefferson had the greatest contribution, being attracted to French cuisine, while an ambassador to France. Returning to America, he promoted those dishes. This is the reason why much of today’s world calls fried potatoes French fries!

The first settlers planted the potatoes straight between the stumps of newly vacated areas, which was unthinkable with many other crops. Thanks to the Irish and English settlers, potatoes have travelled around the world.

One of the wars between Prussia and Austria was called the “Potato War”. The war did not begin because of a potato dispute, its name was due to the impossibility of either party to establish dominance through combat. That is why both sides ordered their troops to destroy as much as possible of the enemy’s food supplies.

During the potato exploration in Scotland, several clans refused to eat potatoes because they were not described in the Bible. Similar argument was made by the Orthodox Russian Church at the time of Ekaterina the Great. The suspicion in potatoes was so great that despite the misery they lived in, the Russian muzhiks (readnecks) starting eating the new food only after her son Nikolay I sent troops to several larger villages in 1774 to put them in arms.

The first potatoes in New Zealand were planted by Captain Cook, who thus hoped to get the local population out of cannibalism.

The first potatoes in Tasmania were planted on the Bruni Island by Captain Bly. Two years later, during his visit to the same island, the captain found that his plantations were dead. It was only after his return to Europe that he thought he might have to look under the soil …

The annual profit from potato production today exceeds 700 times the value of all gold and silver exported from the Spanish colonies. Perhaps the conquistadors did not appreciate exactly what was the greatest treasure?

Among Peruvian Indians, cold preservation is still used today.

According to Nietzsche, a rice-based crop is predisposed to opium, while a potato-based culture will have a drinking problem.

More than 320 million tonnes of potatoes are produced annually today.

Although growing in all of the US states, Idaho is considered to be the potato country – something like the American Samokov. The first potatoes there were planted by Henry Spalding, a pious colonist, who wanted to prove that the colony could feed on farming. After two successful crops, his colony was abandoned for Indian attacks. The Indians, however, were the first to benefit from the Spalding case – a few years later, potatoes were the main commodity they exchanged with newcomers-settlers against European goods and weapons.

In 1995, potatoes became the first space-growing vegetable in a joint project of NASA and the University of Wisconsin.

Potato Chips was invented in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, by the American of Indian origin – George Crump.

An average potato contains half the daily amount of vitamin C for an adult.

Avoid the green part of the peel – it contains solanine, formed by the light which, although not poisonous, can cause temporary gastrointestinal disorders. Cut the green portions of the peel, but keep as much of the remaining peel as possible – it contains the largest portion of the vitamins.

Most grocery stores and large potato producers spray them with chemicals to prevent germination, so they are not the best choice for seed potatoes. By buying from specialized stores or small manufacturers, you will have much better results.

The best time for picking potatoes is when most of their leaves dry up. Store them in a dry and dark place.


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