Book Review: 'Potato' by John Reader

By Peter Behrens
Sunday, May 31, 2009


A History of the Propitious Esculent

By John Reader

Yale Univ. 315 pp. $28

Using the potato as guide, mantra, fetish and structuring device, John Reader serves up a potato-centric history of the world. And a delicious, if not always entirely persuasive, dish it is.

The potato as glamour vegetable? Well, no. No one has ever called potatoes "love apples" -- those were tomatoes. But in northern Europe in the 16th century, when they were still rare enough to pass for exotic, potatoes were thought to possess aphrodisiac properties. This delusion didn't last long, and was neutralized by the more widespread, equally bogus, claim that potatoes caused leprosy.

Humble spuds may not be hotties, but they are, says Reader, "the best all-round bundle of nutrition known." Their roots are in South America, where the ancestral species grows wild. Of the seven cultivated species, six are still grown only at high altitudes in the Peruvian Andes. The seventh, S. tuberosum tuberosum, grows in the Andes too, where it is known as the "improved" potato, but it also does well at lower altitudes. This is the one grown all over the world, in dozens of different varieties.

The Spanish transplanted the spud to Europe in the 16th century, by way of the Canary Islands. Growing underground -- bulbous, white, and strange -- potatoes had image problems on the Continent at first. There was that leprosy smear. As far as millions of peasants were concerned, the subterranean bizarreness of tuberous growth compared unfavorably to the airy, sunlit, wholesomeness of the familiar cereal grains -- barley, rye, oats and wheat -- that had sustained Europe for centuries.

The spud did not become a staple food in Europe until the 17th and 18th centuries, when warfare was widespread and frequent. Reader argues that this was no coincidence: Disruptions and upheavals inflicted by marauding armies changed the diet and tastes of the Continent, with massive demographic and economic consequences. When grain fields weren't being torched or requisitioned, armies were camping on them or marching through them. It wasn't a matter of choice but a lack of options that really dropped the potato onto Europe's plate around 1700. While cereal grains were exposed to the ravages of war, potatoes were safely hidden in the ground and, when the tides of war receded, could be harvested and stored. This was when Europe discovered that the potato may be monotonous, but it is also extraordinarily nutritious, yielding four times more calories per acre than grain. And if you've eaten frites in Brussels or Ulster colcannon, you know the marvelous variety the potato can offer.

Except for the Peruvian highlands, nowhere else did the spud burrow deeper than in Ireland, where it was grown earlier and more extensively than almost anywhere else. The Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century -- known in Ireland as "The Great Hunger" -- is the centerpiece of Reader's book. Ireland got hooked on the potato less because of climate and soil than because of patterns of land ownership and Ireland's status as a conquered nation. Like everything, the potato is political. After spuds were introduced, the landless poor could grow enough to feed and multiply on the marginal acreages they were allowed to occupy on the fringes of farms and estates always owned by someone else.

There may have been no more than 1.5 million Irish before the potato arrived. By 1700 the population reached 2 million: a century later, 5 million, and by 1845 it had soared to 8.5 million. Not hard to grow on "mountainy" Irish acres and easy to prepare, potatoes -- with a little milk, butter or fish every now and then -- were a wholesome and sustaining diet. In western Ireland by the mid-19th century, millions of landless peasants had no other resources than a potato garden. So when the crop went down -- to a fungus, Phytophthora infestans -- old Ireland went down with it. And in the most basic sense, Celtic Tiger notwithstanding, it has never recovered. There are still fewer people in the country than in 1840.

I was in Dublin in the early 1990s when news of a terrible famine in Somalia leaked out into the world. The Irish caught a case of the jitters. Everywhere I went, people were talking about Somalia: It pushed Gerry Adams and the peace process off the front pages and talk-radio programs. Kids appeared on street corners shaking cans, collecting money. The president of the republic flew to New York to address the United Nations on behalf of the Somali famine victims.

If there is a gene for famine memory, the Irish still carry it. It is hard to think of a more forceful example to illustrate Reader's essential point: What we eat -- or sometimes, don't eat -- makes us who we are, and makes history.

Behrens is the author of "The Law of Dreams."

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