BOOKS AUGUST 31, 2011
by John Reader
Yale University Press, 336 pp., $18
THERE IS NO more tragic vegetable than the potato. Originating in the Peruvian Andes, it was first domesticated by the Quechua-speaking peoples, who could not help but become reliant on a highly nutritional foodstuff that could be grown in large quantities on small plots in regions inhospitable to grains. John Reader, in his ambling new history of the “propitious esculent,” calls the potato the “best all-around bundle of nutrition known.” Without any help from other products, it can provide a “filling, wholesome and nourishing meal.” But the “innocent” potato, Reader admits, “has facilitated exploitation.” It enabled the Quechua to maintain strong bodies while suffering the deprecations of the Incas (and their system of forced labor). The Incas were followed by Spanish colonizers and then by Spanish and Peruvian hacienda owners, whose “feudal stranglehold on agriculture and farm labor” remained in place until just a few decades ago.
When the Spanish brought potatoes to Europe in the sixteenth century, the locals were skeptical. Churchmen denounced the tuber, noting that potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible. Potatoes were ugly, coming in red, black, and purple varieties and looking like “the deformed hands and feet of the leper—the shunned outcast of the Middle Ages.” Potatoes could even make you a leper. “I am told that the Burgundians are forbidden to make use of these tubers, because they are assured that the eating of them causes leprosy,” wrote the English botanist John Gerard in 1633. But Europe was gearing up for a few centuries of warfare, and the put-upon population, as in the case of the Quechua, would find sustenance in the potato.
As happened everywhere the cultivation of the potato became widespread, their numbers grew—and just in time to serve as a vast workforce for the Industrial Revolution and its inequitable system of low wages and brutal working conditions. In Das Kapital, Marx cites a pamphlet declaring that “if the labourer can be brought to feed on potatoes instead of bread, it is indisputably true that more can be exacted from his labour.” In non-industrial Ireland, the potato was able to maintain a huge army of perpetually near-starving paupers on large estates owned by absentee landlords who had little interest in improving the general welfare. The plant was so ubiquitous that a succession of crop failures in the mid-nineteenth century—which became the Great Irish Famine, from 1845 to (roughly) 1850—reduced the nation’s population by a third (half from death) and provoked an outflow of emigrants that would last for a century and a half. Ireland has never come close to matching its pre-famine population of 8.2 million. In 1904, the Irish nationalist Michael Davitt called the “accursed” potato the “enemy of the poorer Irish peasantry.”
Reader does not flinch from telling this side of the story, but he is not writing a tragedy. The potato, in his words, was “Peru’s gift to the world.” He devotes many pages to celebrating important figures in the modern history of the potato, its greatest champions, men who saw the derided vegetable as a force for good. There is Nicolay Ivanovich Vavilov, a Soviet agricultural botanist who was so seared by the loss of life from the Soviet famine of 1921 that he sidled up to Trotsky on a breadline and told him how “his program of research and plant breeding could eliminate food shortages and bread queues for ever.” Trotsky passed the word to Lenin, who decided to provide funding for Vavilov’s research institute. Despite his scientific acuity (or perhaps because of it), Vavilov eventually ran afoul of a regime that was fixated on grain, and he was thrown in prison, where he died in 1943. (Given the potato’s history, this counts as perhaps the only instance of the Soviet Union passing up a valuable instrument of tyranny.)
The greatest hero of the tuber was Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a Frenchman who was fed exclusively on potatoes during his time as a prisoner of the Prussians during the Seven Years War. He emerged from captivity determined that “all of France should enjoy the benefits of this hitherto despised crop.” He introduced it as a salve against hunger for the poor masses; and he presented it as a curiosity to the aristocracy, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in a private audience in 1785. “Now that the potato was served at court, and had achieved respectability among the aristocracy,” Reader remarks, “Parmentier began promoting its virtues with the panache of a modern-day public relations consultant.” He hosted dinners that included nothing but potatoes. Benjamin Franklin was said to have attended one of them. The same was said of Thomas Jefferson, who, as president in 1802, served potatoes “in the French manner” at the White House, thus (it is claimed) introducing french fries to America.
Bringing us up to the present, Reader describes the considerable efforts in place to combat “the world’s worst agricultural disease”—the pernicious “late” blight that destroyed Ireland’s potato crops so many years ago. The developing world spends upward of $750 million a year on fungicides to combat the disease. Reader also tells – inevitably—of how China has utilized the potato during its explosion of growth over the past few decades. China is not only the world’s largest producer of potatoes—they are grown in huge numbers in remote regions of Inner Mongolia—but it is also a mass consumer of them in the form of french fries. Reader even wonders if the world community could achieve the vaunted Millennium Development Goals with the aid of new disease-resistant strains of potatoes, although he is forced to concede that “while the potato was good at keeping people alive it did not lift many of them out of poverty.”
All of which makes you wonder why he begins his book with the triumphant observation that NASA astronauts will be bringing potatoes with them when they eventually reach Mars. Given the history that he subsequently relates, I can only think: God help the Martians.
Peter Duffy is an author and journalist in New York.