The Commons
Food and Drink

Understanding the potato

Hint: It’s all about the starch

Originally published in The Commons issue #177 (Wednesday, November 7, 2012).


BRATTLEBORO—I have just finished steaming a handful of fingerlings, those miniature banana-shaped potatoes that are so golden, tender, and creamy as to need only a smidgeon of olive oil to complete their journey to my table.

Spuds. I love ’em, and I’m not alone. We are a nation of potato eaters: baked, boiled, mashed, souffléd, scalloped, transformed into salad, browned and crispy and nestled around our roasted meats, made into chips, pan fried, home fried, and most especially French fried.

The humble potato is a remarkably adaptable plant that quickly yields more nutrition on fewer acres and in a greater variety of climates than any other major crop.

* * *

First domesticated in South America 7,000 years ago in an area of the Andes that borders Bolivia and Peru, Solanum tuberosum was a vital crop and crucial piece of the culture to the entire region.

Units of time were measured by how long it took to cook a potato. The Incas developed the first freeze-dried potato, a precursor of instant mashed, called chuñu.

Small potatoes were selected from the harvest, then spread on the ground and allowed to freeze, trampled on during the day to flatten and dry in the sun, and then left to freeze again.

Thus treated, the potatoes could last for years and were ground into flour or reconstituted in soups or other traditional dishes.

In 1532, the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Peru looking for gold. They managed to destroy Inca civilization in the process but somehow saved the potato and brought it back to Europe. Like the tomato and other members of the nightshade family, the potato was viewed with suspicion and fear.

In the American colonies, the potato was introduced in the early 1600s. Thomas Jefferson served potatoes in the White House, but the general population still looked on them with skepticism.

* * *

Widespread domestic cultivation of the potato did not take place in Europe until the late 1700s, when Europe was deep in the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars.

Food was scarce and resources few. An acre of fertilized potato field can produce up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with some leftovers for the pigs.

You could eat potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a bit of fatback thrown in now and then — repetitive and uninteresting, perhaps, but nonetheless nutritious. Potatoes soon became the crop of survival.

In 1845, the same fungus as the one that we Vermonters sometimes see on our tomato plants struck potatoes across Europe and hit Ireland with a vengeance hard to imagine.

The Irish poor relied on the potato for 80 percent of their daily caloric intake. The “late blight” that infected the potato crop in the mid-1800s was devastating in its completeness. The leaves of the plants turned black, withered, and dropped.

Once-generous stores of potatoes were turned into wet and moldy ruins. More than 1.5 million Irish men, women, and children starved to death between 1841 and 1851: one person out of every 45.

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