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History of Potatoes
Among many edible crops that emerged at the dawn of modern human civilization and managed to spread across entire world, few managed to distinguish themselves by their ruggedness, storage quality and its nutritional value. Potato, indigenous flowering plants of the South America and the Andes mountains (modern-day southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia) managed to prove its usefulness to our ancestors, who cultivated it, nurtured it, and ensured its survival during the last 10,000 years of our history.
Centuries after they were introduced to Europe and North America, potatoes represent one of the most important parts of world’s cuisine and the fourth-largest food crop in the entire world (following maize, rice and wheat). Today, extensive research and the centuries of selective breeding, we now have access to over thousand different types of potatoes that are grown all around the word.
The story of potato started around 350 million years ago, when they started to evolve from the poisonous ancestor of the plant nightshade (this family of plants eventually evolved not only into potatoes, but also into tobacco, chili peppers, bell peppers and tomatoes). Potato slowly evolved into its current form in the South American Andean highlands between Peru and Bolivia. Human settlers reached that part of our world around 15 thousand years ago, and managed to domesticate wild potato around 8 millennia BC.
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From that point on, potato slowly started its journey across the continent, but it received great attention in the 1500s when first Spanish conquistadors started exploring beyond the coasts of South America, especially after 1530s when they searched for gold in Peru. Among their numerous discoveries, potato received a very notable attention, and they brought that plant to Europe between the years of 1570 and 1593 (Canary Islands received it in 1562).
European adoption of potato was slow but steady. In the beginning, Spanish government used potato as a reliable and easily transported food for their military and navy who while using them did not succumb to the scurvy. Potato arrived to Britain in 1585, Belgium and Germany in 1587, Austria in 1588, Ireland in 1589 and France in 1600. Sadly, local population of those countries looked at potato as absolutely unneeded, weird, poisonous (only roots of the plant were edible, which was totally unheard off in Europe), and in some cases as downright evil.
For many years, potato was accused for causing leprosy, syphilis, early death, sterility, rampant sexuality, scrofula, narcosis and for destroying the soil where it grew. This sentiment receded from the Europe only after large scale efforts of France to find food that would sustain not only their military, but also population that was starved from continuous warfare.
Long examination of the potato by the famous French botanist and chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier finally paid off when he persuaded King of France Louis XVI (1754–1793) to encourage mass cultivation of this plant my tricking the population. King gave Parmentier funds and land to grow 100 acres of potato, which were carefully guarded by military guards.
Such large military and government attention on guarding these potatoes instantly sparked the attention of the people, who after that started adopting potato more and more until it became one of the most popular food sources in the Europe. The wife of the French king Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) also contributed by pining potato flowers in her curls, a move that was quickly emulated by noble ladies all across the Europe.
In early 1800s, potato became a commonplace crop that was used in entire Europe, but such popularity became severely tested between 1845 and 1849 when disease destroyed entire potato production of Ireland. During this “Great Starvation” around one million people died from starvation, and forced large amount of people to emigrate out of Ireland (500 thousand left for North America and Australia).
United States of America was the last major country who adopted potato in their cuisine. For many years they regarded this crop for horses and other animals. Only after the 1872 efforts of famous horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849-1926), American potato industry managed to gain some traction. This was enabled by Burbank’s discovery of disease resistant potato hybrid, and another hybrid that was used in Ireland to help combat blight epidemic.
In 20th century, potato became accepted across entire world as one of the most beloved and produced food sources, effectively becoming the most essential crop of Europe. Its high caloric value and wide variety of types enabled it to appear in every cuisine in the world. In 2010 world production of potatoes reached incredible 324 million tons (74.8 million tons in China, 36.6 in India, 21.1 in Ukraine, 18.3 in United States and 10.2 in Germany, etc.).
Stories About the Origin of Potatoes: Tubers Have Been Around For Thousands of Years
Potatoes have an incredibly rich and interesting history. For thousands of years, they were cultivated by the Incas in Peru. The earliest archaeological evidence exists on the shores of Lake Titicaca from roughly 400 BCE!
The Incas learned how to preserve this durable veggie for storage by dehydrating and mashing them into a substance called chuñu. They could store it for up to 10 years, and it provided great insurance against crop failures. The Incas had a great reverence for potatoes, and thought that they made childbirth easier, as well as used them to treat injuries. It wasn’t until the mid-sixteenth century that potatoes would venture across the seas to Europe.
Potatoes Travelled to Europe by Way of Spanish Conquistadors
In 1532 conquistadors from Spain came sailing onto the scene searching for vast riches to bring back to Europe. They found these mysterious-looking tubers (kind of like a short, fleshy, underground stem) and had no idea that these innocuous-looking vegetables were far more valuable than gold and jewels (you can’t even eat gold and jewels!). They stashed them aboard their ships, and returned home.
The 1600s saw the spread of potatoes through Spain, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, and Portugal, but people were hesitant to cook with them. Many people were incredibly suspicious of potatoes, because of their resemblance to plants in the nightshade family—some people thought they were crafted by witches.
Eventually, explorers, merchants, and people prone to taking long sea voyages noticed how long they stayed fresh and tasty, and began using them as basic rations aboard their ships.
Europeans Were Intensely Suspicious of Potatoes
In the 1700s, the aristocracy in France and Prussia recognized how easy it was to grow potatoes, and how they could better feed their population with them. But they were challenged with how to convince people that potatoes should be considered food fit for humans. Up until then, they were being fed almost exclusively to animals.
Frederick the Great wanted to feed his nation and help lower the price of bread. So he came up with a scheme, and a pretty good one at that.
To elevate potatoes in the eyes of his people, he planted a royal field of potatoes, and placed a heavy guard around it. Naturally, this made people curious. They figured that anything worth guarding that heavily was absolutely worth stealing. And so they began to steal the potato plants for their home gardens and the plants were quickly spread.
How the French Monarchs Tried to Convince their Subjects to Eat Potatoes
The French aristocracy thought the best way to inspire people to start seeing potatoes en vogue was to start literally wearing potato blossoms. Some of the most famous adoptees of this fashion trend was King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. They decorated their buttonholes and hair with the white and purple flowers, helping to influence people’s perception of these fashionable and delicious potatoes.
Thomas Jefferson Makes Potatoes Fashionable in North America
The ever-exploring Europeans brought the potato into North America in the 1620s when the British governor in the Bahamas made a special gift of them to the governor of Virginia. They spread slowly through the northern colonies, but had much of the same initial reception in North America as they did in Europe.
It wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson served up some fresh spuds during a White House dinner to some of his distinguished guests that potatoes were seen in a whole new light. From there, potatoes were able to gain steady popularity—especially amongst Irish immigrants.
The Modern Russet Potato Appeared in the Late 1800s
After hundreds of years of patiently waiting for the world to accept them as a vegetable with so much to offer, potatoes were finally recognized as the no-fuss, nutritious vegetable they are. Population booms seemed to follow them wherever they went, and none were so dramatic than in Ireland. By the 1800s, potatoes were a staple in the homes of Irish families.
The high yields of potato crops allowed even the poorest farmers to produce healthy food with very little resources. As a result, potatoes evolved and were bred to be larger so that they could feed more people. In the late 1800s, the modern-day russet potato was born.
Potatoes Become One of the Top 5 Most Important Crops in the World
Eventually, people realized that they were one of the best veggies around—in fact, potatoes alone supply every vital nutrient except for calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D. They went from being one of the most misunderstood forms of produce to one of the top five most important food crops on our planet.
Fun Facts About Potatoes
The potato, from the perennial Solanum tuberosum, is the world’s fourth largest food crop, following rice, wheat, and maize.
The Inca Indians in Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes around 8,000 BC to 5,000 B.C. In 1536 Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru, discovered the flavors of the potato, and carried them to Europe.
Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589 on the 40,000 acres of land near Cork. It took nearly four decades for the potato to spread to the rest of Europe.
Eventually, agriculturalists in Europe found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate than other staple crops, such as wheat and oats. Most importantly, it became known that potatoes contained most of the vitamins needed for sustenance, and they could be provided to nearly 10 people for each acre of land cultivated.