Sunday, April 26, 2009

If beef's the king of meat, potato's the queen of the garden world. ~Irish Saying

Just this past week I planted approximately 50 potatoes in my garden.  If this crop does even moderately well I believe that I will probably have enough potatoes for myself and to trade or sell to others.  But as I planted all of these potatoes (8 different varieties) I began to wonder about the potato itself.  For the potato is one of the most commonly eaten vegetables in America, second only to corn.  This seems appropriate since these two vegetables are native to the Americas.  However I think you must look at the history of the potato to truly appreciate its rise to stardom in America.  For a little over 140 years ago the potato was nearly non-existent as a culinary dish in the United States.

Archaeologists have found remains of potatoes that date back nearly 2500 years in the modern regions of Peru and Chile.  The Incas grew and worshiped the potato as a divine gift.  The Incas would have storage sites along their roads.  Within these storage sites potatoes would lie waiting for the hungry traveler who needed their nourishment.  The conquistadors of course invaded and conquered the Americas in the 1500's. In 1565 a Spanish conquistador named Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada took the potato back to Spain in lieu of the gold that he was supposed to have found.  Although this may not be the first time potatoes were brought to Europe it is the first recorded event of when they were brought back.  The Spanish were so taken with the potato that they kept them on all of their sailing ships.  It should also be noted that on ships where sailors ate potatoes scurvy did not occur.  

However it should be noted that the potato did not receive as good a reception from the rest of Europe as it did from Spain.  It was considered by many to be a weird, poisonous. and evil plant.  In France the potato was thought to cause leprosy, syphilis, narcosis, scrofula, early death, sterility, and rampant sexual behavior.  Many farmers also believed that the potato would destroy the soil where it grew making it impossible to grow anything else where it grew. The town of Besancon, France passed an edict in opposition to the potato that stated, "In view of the fact that the potatoe is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it."  Legend has it that a Spanish ship wrecked off the coast of Ireland and potatoes washed ashore giving the Irish their potatoes. 

However, it wasn't until the late 1700's that potatoes really made a show in Europe.  French military chemist Antonin-Augustin Parmentier won a contest to create a stable food crop that would help stave off famine and offer the French military an abundant source of food.  Parmentier convinced King Louis XVI to allow him to plant potatoes on 100 acres of worthless land just outside of Paris.  He also convinced the King that a group of soldiers would be needed to gaurd the crops during the day and night.  A couple of months after the potatoes were planted he arranged for the soldiers to be absent one night.  As Parmentier predicted the local farmers scrambled across the fields in search of a crop that was so important that the King would set men to guard it.  After this night the potato became a staple crop in every French farmer's garden.  In the 1790's Marie Antoinette would wear potato flowers in her hair.  Because of this all the ladies of France during this era would wear the flowers of the potato in their hair.

Luther Burbank a horticulturist, in 1872, develops the Russet Burbank and with this development the Idaho potato industry begins to take off.  The secret behind the Russet Burbank is the fact that it is close in taste to the Irish potato but much more disease resistant.  

"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

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