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Potato ~ a bit of history

Published May 19th, 2010 in Alternative Perspective

Potato ~ a bit of history

By Tammera J. Karr, MSHN, BCIH, CNC, CNW, CNH

The potato is the quintessential Irish food right? Well not really. The potato has a long history that started before it was accidentally washed up on the beaches of Ireland. Potatoes have been cultivated for food for more than 2,000 years In South America. Peru’s Inca Indians, it is believed, have cultivated potatoes since 3000 B.C.

In the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile, archaeologists have found potatoes dating back to 500 B.C. The Incas had many uses for potatoes, which varied in size from a small nut to an apple and in color from red and gold to blue and black. The Incas grew and ate potatoes and worshipped them. They buried potatoes with their dead, stashed potatoes in concealed bins 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). They placed raw potato slices on broken bones, carried them to prevent rheumatism and ate them with other foods to prevent indigestion. The Incas also used potatoes to measure time by correlating how long it took potatoes to grow.

Spanish explorer and conqueror, Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada (1499-1579), took the potato to Spain in lieu of the gold. The Spanish thought the potato was 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. This is due to the high vitamin C content of potatoes.

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, sterility, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew.

An Irish legend says ships of the Spanish Armada, wrecked off the Irish coast in 1588, were carrying potatoes and that some of them washed ashore.   Sir Walter Raleigh, 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. The local gentry were invited to a banquet featuring the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the cooks had no clue what to do with the potatoes and tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled stems and leaves (which are poisonous), and promptly made everyone deathly ill. The potatoes were then banned from court.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, 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. Many French potato dishes now bear his name today. In 1785, Parmentier persuaded the 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 the guards were allowed to go off duty, the local farmers, as hoped, went into the field, stole the potatoes and planted them on their own farms. From this small start, the habit of growing and eating potatoes spread.

The “Great Famine” or “Great Starvation” in Ireland was the result of a disease that decimated the potato crop. 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.” Sound Familiar?

Although potatoes are grown throughout the United States, no state is more associated with the potato than Idaho.  In the 1850’s, most Americans consider 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.”  It was not until the Russet Burbank potato, developed by American horticulturist Luther Burbank in 1872 that the Idaho potato industry really took off.

Today, the potato is ranked as the most consumed vegetable in America. Because of its high glycemic rating and the addition of fat used in frying this food has added in increasing America’s waist line considerably.  We seem to forget that the potato has only been with us for a few hundred years and as such our DNA structure is not adapted at utilizing this starch food well. I personally love potatoes, but know I can only eat them in small quantities if I expect to dodge type two diabetes and heart disease.