May 31, 2009
(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)
Many Wendell Berry fans, or at least those who have read the The Gift of Good Land, will understand why I am seriously pumped to read John Reader’s new book, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. Here’s a bit from the WaPo review:
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.
Wondrous variety, but also huge problems. The potato is one of the most under-appreciated factors affecting geo-politics in the modern era. Almost everywhere it has gone has experienced major surges in population and concurrent political instability. Europe, China, the Americas: all had their positions in the world radically altered by the introduction of such an efficient and reliable source of calories, something we would do well to consider as we idly tweak the genetic knobs of our food sources in the name of higher yields and better disease resistance.