“Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes.”
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), American novelist
“What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
A. A. Milne (1882-1956), popular children’s author
“Only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on, potatoes and matrimony.”
5th Century B.C.
In the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile, archaeologists have found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C. The Incas grew and ate them and also worshipped them. They even buried potatoes with their dead, they stashed potatoes in concealed bins for use in case of war or famine, they dried them, and carried them on long journeys to eat on the way (dried or soaked in stew). Ancient Inca potatoes had dark purplish skins and yellow flesh. The Incas called the potato “papas,” as they do today. Following is the Inca prayer that historians say they used to worship them.
“O Creator! Thou who givest life to all things and hast made men that they may live, and multiply. Multiply also the fruits of the earth, the potatoes and other food that thou hast made, that men may not suffer from hunger and misery.”
16th Century A.D.
The Spanish conquistadors first encountered the potato when they begin arrived in Peru in 1532 in search of gold.
1540 – Pedro de Cieza de Leon (1518–1560), Spanish Conquistador and historian, who wrote about the potato in his chronicles, Chronicles of Peru, in 1540:
“In the vicinities of Quito the inhabitants have with to the maize an other plant that serves to support in great part their existence: the potatoes, that they are of the roots similar to the tubercoli, supplies of one rind more or little hard; when they come bubbled they become to hold like the cooked chestnuts; seccate to the sun call to them chuno and they are conserved for the use.”
1565 – Spanish explorer and conqueror, Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada (1499-1579), took the potato to Spain in lieu of the gold he did not find. The Spanish though that they were a kind of truffle and called them “tartuffo.” Potatoes were soon a standard supply item on the Spanish ships; they noticed that the sailors who ate papas (potatoes) did not suffer from scurvy.
1597 – John Gerard (1545-1612), an British author, avid gardener, and collector of rare plants, received roots of the plant from Virginia where he was able to successfully grow it in his own garden. He wrote in his book The herball, the following about the potato:
“Potatoes of the Virginia. The potato of the Virginia has many coppers flexible cables and that crawl for earth… The root is thick, large and tuberosa; not much various one for shape, color and sapore from common potatoes (the sweet potatoes) but a smaller P some are round as spheres, other ovals; the some longer other shortest ones… It grows spontaneously in America where, as Clusius has reported, it has been discovered; from then I have received these roots from the Virginia otherwise Norembega calls; they grow and they prosper in my garden like in their country of origin… Its correct name is cited in the title it. Poichit possesses not only the shape and the proportions of potatoes, but also their gradevole sapore and virtue we can call them potatoes of the America or Virginia.”
NOTE: Although potatoes were called “potatoes of the Virginia” by early English botanists, they were in fact from South America, not the state of Virginia in the United States.
The potato was carried on to Italy and England about 1585, to Belgium and Germany by 1587, to Austria about 1588, and to France around 1600. Wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous, and downright evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterillity, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew. There was so much opposition to the potato that an edict was made in the town of Besancon, France stating:
“In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it.”
1588 – An Irish legend says that ships of the Spanish Armada, wrecked off the Irish coast in 1588, were carrying potatoes and that some of them washed ashore.
1589 – Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), British explorer and historian known for his expeditions to the Americas, first brought the potato to Ireland and planted them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork, Ireland. Legend has it that he made a gift of the potato plant to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The local gentry were invited to a royal banquet featuring the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the cooks were uneducated in the matter of potatoes, tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled stems and leaves (which are poisonous), which promptly made everyone deathly ill. The potatoes were then banned from court.
18th Century A.D.
1719 – Potatoes had been introduced to the United States several times throughout the 1600s. They were not widely grown for almost a century until 1719, when they were planted in Londonderry, New Hampshire, by Scotch-Irish immigrants, and from there spread across the nation.
1771 – Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), a French military chemist and botanist, won a contest sponsored by the Academy of Besancon to find a food “capable of reducing the calamities of famine” with his study of the potato called Chemical Examination of the Potato. According to historical account, he was taken prisoner five times by the Prussians during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and obliged to survive on a diet of potatoes. He also served dinners at which all courses were made of potatoes. Many French potato dishes now bear his name today.
In 1785, Parmentier persuades Louis XVI (1754–1793), King of France, to encourage cultivation of potatoes. The King let him plant 100 useless acres outside Paris, France in potatoes with troops keeping the field heavily guarded. This aroused public curiosity and the people decided that anything so carefully guarded must be valuable. One night Parmentier allowed the guards to go off duty, and the local farmers, as he had hoped, went into the field, confiscated the potatoes and planted them on their own farms. From this small start, the habit of growing and eating potatoes spread. It is said that Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), Queen of France and married to Louis XVI, often pinned potato flowers in her curls. Because of her, ladies of the era wore potato blossoms in their hair.
1774 – Russian peasant refused to have anything to do with the potato until the mid 1700s. Frederick the Great (1712-1786) sent free potatoes to the starving peasants after the famine of 1774, but they refused to touch them until soldiers were sent to persuade them.
19th Century A.D.
1836 – Although potatoes are grown throughout the United States, no state is more associated with the potato than Idaho. The first potatoes in Idaho were planted by a Presbyterian missionary, Henry Harmon Spalding (1804-1874). Spalding established a mission at Lapwai in 1836 to bring Christianity to the Nez Perce Indians. He wanted to demonstrate that they could provide food for themselves through agriculture rather than hunting and gathering. His first crop was a failure, but the second year the crop was good. After that, the potato growing ended for a number of years because the Indians massacred the people of a nearby mission, so Spalding left the area.
1845 to 1849 – The Irish Potato Famine: The “Great Famine” or also called the “Great Starvation” in Ireland was caused because the potato crop became diseased. At the height of the famine (around 1845), at least one million people died of starvation. This famine left many poverty stricken families with no choice but to struggle for survival or emigrate out of Ireland. Towns became deserted, and all the best shops closed because store owners were forced to emigrate due to the amount of unemployment. Over one and a half million people left Ireland for North America and Australia. Over just a few years, the population of Ireland dropped by one half, from about 9 million to little more than 4 million.
According to a book written in 1962 called The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith:
“That cooking any food other than a potato had become a lost art. Women hardly boiled anything but potatoes. The oven had become unknown after the introduction of the potato prior to the Great Starvation.”
1850s – Most Americans considered the potato as food for animals rather than for humans. As late as the middle of the 19th Century, the Farmer’s Manual recommended that potatoes “be grown near the hog pens as a convenience towards feeding the hogs.”
1861 – In Isabella Beeton’s 1862 book called Book of Household Management, she wrote about the potato:
“It is generally supposed that the water in which potatoes are boiled is injurious; and as instances are recorded where cattle having drunk it were seriously affected, it may be well to err on the safe side, and avoid its use for any alimentary purpose.”
1872 – It was not until the Russet Burbank potato was developed by American horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849-1926) in 1872 that the Idaho potato industry really took off. Burbank, while trying to improve the Irish potato, developed a hybrid that was more disease resistant. He introduced the Burbank potato to Ireland to help combat the blight epidemic. He sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150, which he used to travel to Santa Rosa, California. In Santa Rosa, he established a nursery garden, greenhouse, and experimental farms that have become famous throughout the world. By the early 1900s, the Russet Burbank potato began appearing throughout Idaho.
20th and 21st Centuries A.D.
Today, the potato is so common and plentiful in the Western diet that it is taken for granted. We seem to forget that the potato has only been with us for a few hundred years.
As American As Apple Pie, by Philllip Stephen Schulz, published by Simon and Schuster, 1990.
A Brief History of the Idaho Potato Industry, by The Idaho Potato Commission, an internet web site.
Chilies to Chocolate, by Nelson Foster and Linda S. Cordell, published by The University of Arizona Press, 1992.
An Internet Modern History Source Book, an internet web site.
Food – An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Food of the World, by Waverley Root, published by Smithmark, 1980.
Food Museum, Potato, an internet web site.
Growing and Cooking Potatoes, by Mary W. Cronog, published by Yankee, Inc., 1981.
Royal Cookbook – Favorite Court Recipes From The World’s Royal Families, published b Parents’ Magazine Press.
Sauerkraut Yankees, Pennsylvania – German Foods and Foodways, by William Woys Weaver, published by University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
Tallyrand’s Culinary Fare, by Jos Wellman, an internet web site.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001.
The Food Chronology, by James Trager, published by Henry Holt and Company 1995.
The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, by Cecil Blanche Fitz Gerald Woodham Smith, Cecil Woodham-Smith, Charles Woodham, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962.
The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes, by John Gerard, London, Printed by A. Islip, J. Norton, and R. Whitakers, 1636). Secondedition revised by Thomas Johnson (d. 1644) and first published in 1597.
The Night 2000 Men Came To Dinner and Other Appetizing Anecdotes, by Douglas G. Meldrum, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994.
The Potato Book, by Myrna Davis, published by William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1972.
Whole Foods Companion, by Dianne Onstad, published by Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1996.
If a woman is expecting a baby, she should not eat potatoes because the baby will be born with a big head.
A potato in your pocket will cure rheumatism and eczema.
If you have a wart, rub it with a cut potato, then bury the potato in the ground. As the potato rots in the ground, your ward will disappear.
An old man living alone in South Armagh, whose only son was in Long Kesh Prison, did not have anyone to dig his garden for his potatoes. So he wrote to his son about his predicament.
The son sent the reply, “For HEAVENS SAKE, don’t dig the garden up, that’s where I buried the guns!!!!!”
At 3 AM the next morning, a dozen British soldiers turned up and dug the garden for 3 hours, but didn’t find any guns.
Confused, the man wrote to his son telling him what had happened, asking him what he should do now?
The son sent the reply: “NOW plant the potatoes!”