The Ecology of Humans (52-13) Potato


The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. ~ English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus

The white potato is native to the Peruvian Andes. Peruvians domesticated the tuber 10,000 years ago.

The Incan Empire sustained itself on the potato. Francisco Pizarro encountered the empire in 1526, whereupon he went back to Spain and got permission to conquer. Which he did.

The Spanish conquistadors delivered smallpox and returned with treasure. In the long view, the most valuable thing that came back in the hold of Spanish ships was the spud.

The potato landed in Ireland in 1588. Well, almost. A Spanish galleon shipwrecked off the Irish coast in 1588, whereupon it was gleefully looted. Among the cargo were potatoes.

The Irish were squeezed to subsistence existence by their English conquerors at the time. That turned out to be a lucky break for the potato.

The potato belongs to the nightshade family. Nightshades had a nasty reputation. The then-known nightshade varieties – such as Belladonna (deadly nightshade) – assured an unwelcome reception to relatives from distant lands.

Europeans had not eaten tubers before. Potatoes had no mention in the Bible. They cause leprosy and immorality, so the rumors went. Not to mention that they came from an uncivilized and conquered race.

By the time the potato made its way to the emerald isle, conquering Brits had already seized what little readily arable land was available from the native Irish.

Grains didn’t grow well on the rain-soaked rock called Ireland. But spuds did fine in the stingy soil.

The potato is so nearly complete a food that the Irish were able to subsist on it until the mid-1800s. While the continentals thumbed their collective noses, the potato was welcomed by the Irish natives, as it provided sustenance from a tiny plot of land. The tuber became a successful transplant from one conquered race to another.

The potato was a tuber with a destiny, but it took some doing. Prussia’s Frederick the Great put the hard word on the peasants to plant potatoes, as did Catherine the Great in next-door Russia.

King Louis XVI in France showed more cunning. He plotted to plant the potato with prestige. Marie Antoinette took care to put spud-ware in her hair: she adorned her visage with potato flowers.

Louis had a field of potatoes planted in the royal grounds, guarded by his elite security, who were sent home at midnight. This valued regal crop was much whispered about until a lapse in night security noted by those in penury resulted in the poaching of the royal tubers – a feast fit for a king, they hooted over the potatoes they had looted. And so the potato conquered France.

The grains that grew well in southern Europe fared poorly in the soggier north. Had it not been for the potato, political power might not have tilted north from its long southern perch.

England was the last redoubt of potato prejudice, assailed by religious, ecological, and economic arguments.

Bread was long associated by liturgy with the body of Christ. Turning wheat into bread took work: a Protestant virtue.

On the contrary, potatoes – called “bread root” by the British – was food for the lazy, as the Irish amply testified. That was the perspective from London into the 19th century.

In 1798, English reverend Thomas Malthus worried that population growth would preclude inexorable progress toward a utopian society. The potato presented a positive threat to prosperity by its ability to feed a prodigiously reproductive populace.

Population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increases. The superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice. ~ Thomas Malthus

God’s will be done, Malthus thought, by virtue of natural restraint, which included repressing peasant population growth by keeping food dear. As easy fodder for the common fool, the spud was Satan sent.

The potato became such an exclusive food of the Irish that the potato blight of 1845–1850 – caused by an oomycete that originated in Mexico – resulted in famine. This so disrupted the Irish economy that mass migration resulted, largely to the United States. The irony is that the potato blight probably arrived from America onboard a ship.

The white potato is often called the Irish potato, so strong is the association between the spud and its enthusiastic adopter.

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A freshly dug potato is 78% water, 18% starch, 2.2% protein, and 0.1% fat. Just beneath the skin lies a healthy number of vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, B complex vitamins, and vitamin C. Potatoes are high in dietary fiber in the form of resistant starch.

Nutritionally, all a potato notably lacks is Vitamin A. Properly prepared, a potato is highly nutritious: unsurpassed in being well-balanced to sustain health.

The potato is an exceptionally productive plant, as a higher proportion of its biomass can be eaten than other food crops.

The sweet potato is a distant relative; a member of the morning glory family. Christopher Columbus brought sweet potatoes back to Europe in the 1490s under the name batatas. The true potato migrated 80 years later under the Andean name: papa. The 2 potatoes would become confused as close relations because of their similar look and subterranean lifestyles.

Deep-fried potatoes are called French fries in the United States. The French call them Belgian fries. Potatoes fried in the French manner was noted by Thomas Jefferson. An 1850s American cookbook mentions “French fried potatoes.”

Deep-frying potatoes in fat at high temperature creates a significant portion of acrylamide. Cigarette smoking is another major source of acrylamide. Acrylamide is a cancer-causing chemical which can also cause nerve damage. Acrylamide is used industrially in plastics and grouts.