Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Potato Fact of the Day

In 1596 the English accidentally got their first introduction to the potato, when Sir Francis Drake set sail for England after having conquered the Caribbean regions, wresting them away from the Spanish. He took some potatoes for the trip. He is said to have stopped over at Virginia to pick up some homesick British soldiers, one of whom took a sample of this plant to a botanist friend, John Gerard. This botanist introduced the potato to the world, as a product of Virginia in 1597. The fact was that it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that potatoes arrived on American soil!! When it did, it was due to the Irishmen who had settled in New Hampshire.

The fact was that in Europe, only the Irish were willing to brave all the rumors surrounding this little veggie, and still eat it. Many believed it was poisonous because it belonged to the same botanical family as belladonna, that it caused leprosy because it had given a rash once, that it was not mentioned in the bible hence was unholy, and all sorts of other ridiculous stories. It was only the Irish who favored it, the tuber grew well in their climate and also provided the nutrition the growing population in Ireland needed. It was also considered an aphrodisiac, but that didn’t bother them!! In fact, it was so identified with the Irish that in 1733, the English seedsman Stephen Switzer summed up popular opinion of the potato as "that which was heretofore reckon'd a food fit only for Irishmen and clowns."

In 1588 the potato had arrived in Germany but was considered fit only for consumption of prisoners. Only in 1744 King William ordered peasants to plant them, in order to save them from famine, that it got acceptance as regular food.

It was, however, in Germany that potatoes got their best ally to, as Antoine August Parmentier, a French Chemist who had lived on potatoes while held captive during the seven-year war. When he returned home, he used all his PR powers to gain acceptance for the humble tuber and succeeded. He published a thesis on "Inquiry into nourishing vegetables that at times of necessity could be substituted for ordinary food" in 1773, and also brought a bouquet of potato flowers to King Louis XVI’s birthday party. The king was gracious enough to place a flower in his lapel and his wife; Queen Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair. The Potato had arrived.

The smart chemist decided to continue his potato popularizing activity, throwing parties where up to twenty dishes were made of potatoes, and also obtained permission to plant an acre with potato plants. The real strategy was yet to come. The acre was fastidiously guarded during the day and left unsecured during the night. Curiosities were aroused as to why such an ordinary field needs to be guarded and sure enough, thefts of the plant became regular during the nights. Soon enough, the potato found its way throughout the French countryside. By 1813, the potato had gained acceptance in Scotland, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Thanks to the French, potatoes were finally deemed chic enough to eat.

The potato was such an important part of the Irish diet that almost 20% of their population was wiped out in the middle of the seventeenth century, when a potato crop failed. In 1845, another potato famine hit Ireland and this time they migrated in great numbers to the United States.

-To Fry or To Chip

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