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? 

A Close Shave

Shaving brush Nicola here. Are beards hot or not? Recently I was reading an article in the BBC History Magazine that reminded me that sporting a beard in 18th and 19th century Europe or America was far more than just a fashion choice for a man. Throughout history, in fact, the decision on whether to be clean shaven or not was often tied in to cultural and political influences.

The Historical Beard

The 16th century was a time of prodigious beards; the English beard was square cut, the Spanish one Sir Francis Drake shaped like a spade and when Francis Drake (pictured with what actually looks like a Spanish beard) claimed to have singed the King of Spain's beard when he raided Cadiz in 1587 he was making a political point. His attack had damaged the enemy but had not entirely destroyed it. It was also a taunt, the 16th century equivalent of "bring it on!"

Peter the Great The beard also had a significant role to play in the English Civil Wars of the 17th century when the clean-shaven Roundheads believed that the Cavaliers' long curly tresses represented every possible vice, and the Cavaliers considered the Roundheads lack of hirsuteness to mean they also lacked wit, wisdom and virtue. But probably the most despotic act against the beard was Peter the Great of Russia's edict in 1698 that all Russian men should shave off their beards and his decision in 1705 to levy a tax on anyone who persisted in wearing one. He felt that Russia should embrace western modernity and the removal of the luxuriant Russian beard was one of the most telling ways to demonstrate this. Here's Peter on the left, without the beard but still with a neat little moustache!

Polish and Gentility

In the 18th and early 19th centuries being clean shaven chimed with Enlightenment notions of polish and gentility. Cleanliness and good self-presentation fitted with the idea of harnessing nature through scientific progress, and hirsuteness was condemned as unkempt and wild. Only hermits could really get away with beards and ordinary men who sported them were considered eccentric at best and untrustworthy at worst. Writing in the "Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Literature and the Arts" in 1802, William Nicholson noted that "the caprice of fashion, or modern day improvements, has deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards." But fashion and the influence of the Enlightement was not the only factor at work. Technological advances in steel-making had seen new types of metal come onto the market and some of these, particularly crucible steel, were ideal for making razors that could for the first time guarantee a close shave.

Self Help for Beginners

The aristocratic gentleman usually retained a manservant trained to handle a razor but for most men a shave was Barbers shop obtained at the barbers and many Georgian cariacatures poke fun at the figure of the barber with his blunt razors like "oyster knives" who scraped and scraped away at the faces of his victims. Barber-surgeons had traditionally had a role in tooth-drawing and blood-letting as well as shaving (which could be much the same thing) but in 1745 a separate Company of Barbers was established. This was also the period when shaving oneself was becoming possible. For the first time razor-makers began to advertise their products to private individuals. But shaving oneself was no easy matter in the days before safety razors, especially for those with uneven or pock-marked faces. In 1770 a French razor-maker wrote "Pogonotomie; or the art of shaving Oneself," a self-help guide for beginners.

Naturally the razor had to be used in conjunction with a variety of lathers and creams, and the 1770s was also the period when these started to be marketed to individuals. Charles Woodcock of London advertised a sweet scented lather to give a close shave in 1772 and the British Shaving Paste was launched in 1793. Shaving creams and pastes were sold in many fashionable perfumiers.

Changing times, changing beards

Victorian man with beard All fashions change, of course, and by 1850 the beard was back. In the Victorian era it was associated with ideas of masculinity and male courage. The resulting popularity has contributed to the stereotypical Victorian male figure of the stern patriarch clothed in black whose authority is underscored by a heavy beard and side whiskers. This trend can be recognised in the United States of America, where the shift can be seen amongst the post-Civil War presidents. Before Abraham Lincoln no President had a beard; after Lincoln until Taft every President except Andrew Johnson and William McKinley had either a beard or a moustache. The last word should therefore go to poet Samuel Butler, who wrote in the late 17th century: "Speak with respect and honour, both of the beard and the beard's owner.

Are you a fan of the hirsute hero? Do you prefer a clean-shaven Regency man, reflecting Enlightenment ideas, or a Victorian hero whose beard is a sign of his virility and masculinity?