A Brief History Of The Potato
How did this member of the nightshade family gain the top spot in American and Irish cooking?
The potato is a South American native, much favored by the Inca of Peru, as the Spanish discovered when they landed. Amazed by the differences in vegetation, they found themselves frequently unsure about what they were eating. The potato, however, they found quite tasty, and sent back a quantity when they returned home in 1570.
The Spanish adopted them easily, using them for ship stores. However, they did not spread to the rest of Europe for unknown reasons. When Sir Francis Drake visited the Caribbean, he took potatoes from there to Virginia, where eventually they made their way to England, and from there, the rest of Europe.
The attraction of the potato was that it was a crop that could live in poor soil, and yet produced a vegetable that was high in energy, and was nutritious, supplying all essential amino acids and twice as much protein as wheat.
However, it was difficult to get people to eat them. Even starvation didn't always do the job. When the citizens of Kolberg were suffering from hunger in 1774, Frederick of Prussia sent them loads of potato to alleviate the situation. Only the presence of the militia encouraged the consumption of the hated tuber.
Finally, hunger won out, in general. Too easy to ignore a crop that was so reliable, and could withstand even the harshness of battle (unlike wheat, which could be trampled). But, hardly sooner than it became a staple, the potato blight in the mid-1840s raged, destroying crops not only in Ireland, but worldwide. Elizabeth Barret Browning wondered if the vegetable would completely vanish in her poem, Aurora Leigh.
Much to the joy of junk food lovers everywhere, however, the pototo did manage to survive, and become popular once more. Perhaps as a result of almost losing this staple, chefs of the late 1800s created new ways of serving the vegetable that survive to this day--French fries and potato chips.