History of Potatoes

“Meat and potatoes” are the foundation of most American cooking and of many European cuisines as well. The spud is so rooted in Western cooking that it’s sometimes hard to believe the vegetable was totally unknown in Europe just a few hundred years ago.

In the mid 16th century, Spanish conquistadors in South America discovered that the Incas ate a white tuber they called “papa.” (Perhaps it was the “father” of their diet.) The Incas used the plum-sized vegetables in hundreds of ways, baking them in hot ash, eating them raw or dried, and even pounding them into a flour.

The Spaniards thought the tuber was a form of truffle, since the Incas found them underground. Pedro Cieca, an officer of Juan Pizarro, shipped a load of the spuds back to Spain. From there, they were sent to the Pope for inspection, and eventually to a Belgian botanist for classification.

The botanist called the vegetable taratoufli, “little truffle,” a word recognizable in the present German word for potato, kartoffel. But the Spaniards found the spud similar to the sweet potato, called patata after the African batata, and christened the new vegetable by the same name. The English for a time also called both vegetables by the same name: potato.

Within twenty years of their arrival in Europe, potatoes were being grown, sold, and eaten in Spain, though far less than the sweet potato. After Sir Walter Raleigh planted potatoes on his Irish estate, spud farms began to sprout up all around the Emerald Isle. But in England and Scotland, the potato remained unpopular for two hundred years, defamed as “Ireland’s lazy root.”

In the late 17th century, the German monarch Frederick William decided that the potato could solve his nation’s food shortage, and he decreed that all peasants should plant spuds. Those who refused to would have their noses and ears cut off. It’s unknown how many farmers lost their features because of the bog apple, but Frederick’s decree may help explain why potatoes have become so popular in Germany.

The English, with considerably less encouragement to plant the spud, did not become large-scale potato eaters until the latter half of the 18th century. The Scots, meanwhile, continued to resist the spud, with some Presbyterian clergymen declaring that since the vegetable was not mentioned in the Bible it could not be fit for human consumption.

France was the last European nation to accept the potato. A soldier who had spent considerable time in Germany returned to his homeland to convince fellow Frenchmen that the potato was both edible and delicious, despite medical advice that the vegetable was “toxic and the cause of many illnesses.”

The first potato to reach the shores of North America arrived around 1622, imported by Virginia colonists as a food. The first potato cultivation didn’t begin in America until 1719, when Irish immigrants planted spud fields in New Hampshire. Thomas Jefferson, by the way, was the first American to serve french fries with beefsteak, a combination now as institutionalized in America as the Declaration of Independence. And it was the German immigrants you can either thank or blame for potato salad.

Of all the foodstuffs indigenous to the Americas, none is as useful as the potato. Potatoes are easy to cultivate and can be stored for long periods of time. To give you an idea of the fecundity of the potato, in 1968, an English farmer reported that just six seed potatoes had yielded a whopping 1,190 pounds of spuds.

The potato is also one of the most versatile vegetables. You can do almost anything to the spud and still it insists on remaining edible. Potatoes can be home-fried, french-fried, deep-fried, mashed, hash-browned, baked, boiled, oven-roasted, or made into chips, sticks, salad, pancakes. They can be coal-roasted as mickies, or powdered into instant potatoes, well, you get the idea.

Spuds can also team up deliciously with many other foods, and the list of dishes featuring the potato is virtually endless. Potatoes O’Brien joins diced, fried spuds with onions, green peppers, and pimientos. For potatoes Lyonnaise, boil potato slices, then brown and add onions. Dumplings are made from grated spuds and baking soda, while potato knishes wrap mashed potatoes and onions in a pastry dough. Popular potato soups include vichyssoise, made from onions, leeks, potatoes, cream, and consomme, and usually served cold. For scalloped potatoes, spread alternate layers of thin-sliced potatoes and onions in a casserole dish, add milk, and bake.

Speaking of thin-sliced spuds, the well-known Saratoga chips were invented, not surprisingly, in Saratoga, New York, when a guesthouse chef appropriately named George Crumb lost his patience with a guest who insisted on thin french fries. Crumb cut a potato into paper-thin slices, dropped them in oil, and-presto!-another American institution was founded.

In 1969, Australian Paul Tully set a record for potato chip devouring by consuming thirty two-ounce bags in twenty-four-and-a-half minutes, without a drink. And while we’re on the subject, the record for potato gobbling is three pounds in four minutes and forty-five seconds, set in Worcestershire, England in 1976. We have no idea if the spuds were peeled or unpeeled, or served with or without Worcestershire sauce.

To settle an oft-heard dispute: no, the sweet potato and the yam are not the same vegetable. The yam is in fact almost never seen in this country, no matter what food packagers claim to the contrary!

More than one American tourist has been known to ask his confused French waiter for french fries. The French actually call them pommes (rites, and the French word for potato is pomme de terre, literally “earth apple.”

The French have also contributed “pommes souffl├ęs”, or souffled potatoes, to our gastronomic repertoire. The delicacy was reportedly created by the personal chef of Louis XIV. In this case, necessity was definitely the mother of invention. One afternoon, the king left the palace to inspect his army, then engaged in warfare with the Dutch. On the return voyage to the palace, the Sun King’s coach was delayed by a downpour that made the roads impassable. When his master did not appear at the expected hour, the Royal Chef began to panic. The Great Monarch was a most fastidious diner, who insisted that his repasts be served the instant he arrived at the royal dinner table. The cook had prepared a huge batch of the king’s beloved pommes frites, but as the hours passed and still Louis failed to appear, the fries began to frazzle and turn cold and soggy.

Suddenly, a herald announced the entrance of the king. The agitated chef, in dismay, grabbed the deep-fat fryer and submerged the wilted french fries in sizzling oil, shaking the fryer madly from side to side. Et voila, a dish fit for a king was born. The potatoes emerged from this second bath in deep hot oil all puffed up, golden brown and heavenly delicious.

To make pommes soufflies is a culinary feat. It is said that the heat of the oils must be perfect. Consult a good cookbook and try it. You, too, might achieve gastronomic immortality.

According to another tale, however, the origin of souffled potatoes is considerably less regal. A 19th century French chef was charged with preparing a banquet to celebrate the opening of a new railroad line. While preparing the repast at one of the new stations, the chef was notified that the train carrying a coachload of dignitaries to the banquet would be delayed. So he took his half-cooked french fries out of the oil and began preparing a fresh batch. Then he was notified that the train was pulling into the station, on time after all. Frantic, the chef plunged the half-cooked potatoes back into the fat, and the soggy fries puffed into crisp ovals, pommes soufflies!

The sweet potato and the yam are not the same vegetable. The yam, in fact, is rarely grown in the United States.

Today, Americans consume literally billions of spuds each year, production usually hovers around 34 billion pounds, with the most well-known varieties hailing from Idaho, Maine, and Long Island.

Potatoes remain, pound for pound, one of the cheapest foodstuffs available, perhaps because they can be grown so easily. If you believe some mothers, they’ll even grow behind the dirty ears of little boys.