While we hunker down in pestilential semi-confinement, many of us will be far from flattening our own curves through the consumption of deep-fried and kettle-cooked tuber slices. I refer, of course, to the versatile yet unassuming potato: that odd-looking root vegetable which has nevertheless changed the world’s palate. This recent article notes the potato’s importance to world history, also the subject of the forthcoming book Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato, by Rebecca Earle. What is the historical significance of the potato for early modern culture, beginning in the 1500s–an era of Tudors and tubers?
The potato originated in the mountainous range of South America which belonged to a woman named Andrea (hence the nickname ‘Andes Mountains’). They had been cultivated there for over 7,000 years before the arrival of early modern Europeans: they were tubers of great Ande-quity. These Europeans were Spanish Conquistadors, who invaded Peru in 1532. They brought back the loot stolen from the Incas, as well as tomatoes, avocados, tubers, and corn: this is known in food history as the ‘Great Columbian Exchange’. The exchange especially of the latter foodstuff would provide material for corny jokes, but readers would fail to be a-maized. The potato, however, was difficult to grow in Spain and elsewhere in Europe where there is a lack of regular sunlight, unlike the equatorial regions of the globe. This was not exactly an equato-ble exchange. The potatoes were confused by the annual climatic variations: the weather in Europe is both unreasonable and unseasonable.
It found better growing conditions in Ireland, however, particularly because the Emerald Isle’s ‘cool but frost-free fall’ meant that the potato plants could mature properly. It became a staple food for Irish peasants, especially given the high yields. Plus, the potato was I-rich in vitamins and nutrients. By the 17th to 18th centuries, an acre of potatoes and a milk cow could feed six to eight people. This is just what Irish families needed when the chips were down.
Our heroic tuber spread throughout northern Europe in this period. 18th-century Europe saw almost continual warfare. Wheat was easy to tax and plunder, but not potatoes: grain is easy to spot and seize, but potatoes are largely hidden underground. It may be easy to pluck a bud, but not a spud. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations commented on the superior yield of a potato vs. wheat field. Thus the ‘Enlightened despot’ who ruled late 18th-century Prussia, Frederick II, commanded that peasants be taught how to plant potatoes amidst the invasions of marauding armies. Researchers at Early Modern Times’ Department of Prussian monarchical monikers note Frederick’s earlier enthusiasm for viticulture, such that he was known as ‘Frederick the Grape’, but later flirtation with renaming himself ‘Fred the Spud’ or, less flatteringly, Europe’s Enlightened Despotato.
For the same reasons as in Frederick’s Prussia, potatoes became the food reserve of European countries during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century. Potatoes were the best way for the enemies of Napoleon to protect food stores from these ‘French flies’ (as Napoleon’s troops could have been called). Unsurprisingly, when Bonaparte’s imperial ambitions were uprooted, these potato-growers were ex-tuber-ant.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Religious Potatoleration Studies Program