The Potato – A Slice of History!

Potatoes Nicola here, reflecting on one of my favourite foods! A little while ago I picked up a book about the history of the potato and it was so interesting that I thought I would share a few of the anecdotes here. So here is my historical tribute to the humble tuber. Or, as Shakespeare put it: "Let the sky rain potatoes!"


The potato originated in the Andes at least 8000 years ago but it was only in the 1530s that the SpanishPotato  Conquistadors brought it back to Europe. Both Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh have been credited with introducing it into England circa 1588. However for a long time it was not considered acceptable as a foodstuff and in northern Europe potatoes were mainly grown in botanical gardens as an exotic novelty. Even the poor refused to eat potato at first, considering it to be an ugly plant that had come from a heathen civilization. As a member of the Nightshade family it was rumoured to be poisonous and the work of devils and witches. It also had a reputation as an aphrodisiac but this was not sufficient to overcome its unpopularity. In Elizabethan times it was served roasted in ashes or soaked in wine and then dressed with oil and vinegar and boiled with prunes which perhaps explains why it didn’t catch on as a vegetable for another 200 years.

Parmentier Potatoes

Marie Antoinette It was not until the later 18th century that the potato became respectable. In France it was Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737 – 1813)  a pioneering nutritional chemist, who made the potato acceptable as a foodstuff. Prior to his work the potato had been considered good only for animal feed and in 1748 the French Parliament had forbidden the cultivation of potatoes on the grounds that they were thought to cause leprosy. Parmentier’s award-winning work convinced people of the potato’s nutritional value and it was declared edible by the Paris Faculty of Medicine in 1772. However, resistance remained and Parmentier started a publicity campaign on behalf of the potato, hosting dinners at which exotic potato dishes featured prominently. Parmentier’s guests included celebrities such as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, who spread the word on the potato’s tastiness. Parmentier also gave bouquets of potato blossoms to the King Louis XVI and Queen. Marie Antoinette, who even wore a potato flower headdress for a ball.

There is a statue commemorating Parmentier’s pioneering potato work at his birthplace, Montdider, and he is also remembered in the naming of the dish “Pommes Parmentier,” where potatoes are diced and fried in butter with garlic, bacon and herbs.

Hints Respecting the Culture and Use of Potatoes

England was also slow to warm to the potato. The English diet consisted mainly of meat supplementedHannah Glasse  by bread, butter and cheese. Salad was considered to be dangerous and “greens” usually meant herbs rather than vegetables. It was not until there were food shortages in the late 18th century that the British government began to encourage the cultivation of potatoes. In 1795, the Board of Agriculture issued a pamphlet entitled "Hints Respecting the Culture and Use of Potatoes". The Times printed pro-potato editorials and potato recipes to encourage people to start eating potatoes. The 1796 edition of Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cooking Made Plain and Easy gave eleven potato recipes, half of which included sugar.

As the industrial revolution gathered pace and the population of the cities grew, so did the use of the potato as a foodstuff. Only the richest could afford homes with ovens or coal storage rooms, and people were working 12-16 hour days, which left them with little time or energy to prepare food. High yielding, easily prepared potato crops were the obvious solution to Fruit jelly England's food problems. Once tasted, potatoes quickly gained in popularity. They started to appear in recipe books from the late 18th century. Hot potato vendors became common in cities whereupon a second use for the potato was discovered; ladies would pop a hot potato into their muffs to warm their hands on cold days! In 1818 William Cobbett rather scornfully commented: “It is the fashion to extol potatoes and to eat potatoes.” He was not a fan. The potato became a staple food of the lower classes in Britain but amongst the upper echelons it was still frowned upon. Queen Victoria’s chef Charles Francatelli had very specific ideas of the purpose of the potato. He disguised them in purees and soups or sculpted them into the shape of pears and olives for decoration!

The Democratic Potato

America, quicker than the Old World to embrace something new and exciting, was appreciating potatoes from the early 18th century. Amelia Simmons in her book American Cookery 1796 praised theFrench fries  potato highly and unlike Hannah Glasse, made no attempt to dress it up. Where Mrs Glasse saw the potato primarily as a dessert or a dish that needed to be sweetened, Mrs Simmons saw it as a garnish for meat of fowl. The triumph of the potato in the United States was complete when "French Fries" were served at the White House in 1802 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. They were called “potatoes served in the French manner.”

 The Irish Potato Famine

The most dramatic influence of the potato can be seen in Ireland, where the potato had become a staple  food by 1800. The potato's high yields allowed even the poorest farmers to produce more healthy food than they needed and they took to the potato with a passion. The potato was suited the Irish the soil and climate, and its high yield enabled farmers to feed their families.  The abundance of the potato decreased infant mortality and led to good health. Traditionally it was eaten as a starter, main course and pudding! This dependence on a single crop, however, was the undoing of the Irish during the Potato Famine of the 1840s when a fungus wiped out the crop.

 "Only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on, potatoes and matrimony." Irish saying

Mashed, baked or fried? Parmentier or dauphinoise? How do you like your potatoes?