The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World

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Macmillan, Oct 25, 1999 - Cooking - 319 pages
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The Potato tells the story of how a humble vegetable, once regarded as trash food, had as revolutionary an impact on Western history as the railroad or the automobile. Using Ireland, England, France, and the United States as examples, Larry Zuckerman shows how daily life from the 1770s until World War I would have been unrecognizable-perhaps impossible-without the potato, which functioned as fast food, famine insurance, fuel and labor saver, budget stretcher, and bank loan, as well as delicacy. Drawing on personal diaries, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, and other primary sources, this is popular social history at its liveliest and most illuminating.


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User Review  - Hanno - LibraryThing

Meh. The potato part of the book is pretty boring. The only part I found interesting is the descriptions of living conditions in Ireland, England and France during the described era. Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - ratastrophe - LibraryThing

Zuckerman manages to make potatoes (as well as land politics in Europe) an interesting, engaging topic. Read full review


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About the author (1999)

1 TREASURE OF THE ANDES ... a scarcely innocent underground stem of one of a tribe set aside for evil. --John Ruskin,

Just before the First World War, an American explorer traveling in Peru witnessed an ancient agricultural ceremony. The celebrants were Quecha Indians, descendants of the Incas. The place was a hillside potato field near La Raya, a town 14,500 feet above sea level. Day had just dawned, and the air was bitter cold. The field had been marked into squares, separated by furrows fifteen feet apart. A long line of men stood by, waiting, their ponchos removed to free their limbs. Each man held a long-handled spade to which footrests had been lashed. Facing each pair of men was a woman or girl who remained fully covered, as the explorer imagined that modesty required. At a signal, the men shouted and leaped forward in unison, driving their spades into the soil. Once these "plows" had broken the turf, the women and girls turned the loose clods over by hand, and the men worked their way across the marked field. The American explorer noted that though plowing was "hard and painful" work, the community effort made the task seem joyous. Everyone pitched in, and those who couldn''t keep up were teased.This spirit impressed the explorer, yet something puzzled him. The Peruvian landowner supervising the work wore European clothes and was, he remarked, "evidently a man of means and intelligence." A railroad even ran through the neighborhood. Nevertheless, Western progress hadn''t changed agricultural life at La Raya. The explorer saw no modern tools and was told that the Indians would use only those their ancestors had possessed. He guessed, then, that this kind of plowing went back before the Spanish Conquest. He couldn''t have known what an understatement that was. Some scientists now believe that wild potatoes grew on the Chilean coast thirteen thousand years ago, an era before any human agriculture. The profusion of wild species on the altiplano, as the central Andean highlands are called, suggests that the plant traveled upland soon afterward. Granted, soon is a relative term in a thirteen-millennium span, and humans didn''t cultivate the new plant right away, but its age as a domesticate is still very impressive. No later than seven thousand years ago, Andean peoples farmed potatoes, possibly on the northern Bolivian altiplano between Lakes Titicaca and Poopó. Seven thousand years predates the oldest known cities in Mesopotamia. The Inca empire, if it existed today, would be about seven hundred. A Spanish woodcut from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century shows the Incas plowing in much the way the American explorer saw. In the woodcut scene, work has stopped for a refreshment break. While the laborers lean on their spades or crouch on the ground, a woman brings them chicha, or corn beer. The seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary Bernabe Cobo described plowing as a festive occasion, like a wedding, with people chanting rhythmically to the rising and falling tacllas, the spades with footrests. No doubt the chicha satisfied parched throats and lent force to the singing, which, Cobo said, could usually be heard a couple of miles away. But however antique these traditions seemed to the Spanish--or to the twentieth-century scientist--their true age must be far greater. Evenif the Incas designed the first taclla, they couldn''t have been the first Andean highland people to plow like that. The spade is ideally suited to the altiplano''s topography, which suggests the potato has been raised that way for thousands of years. What the Spanish also didn''t realize when they ran across the potato, no later than 1537 but likely four years earlier, was what tremendous wealth and power they had found. They aren''t entirely to blame, because two centuries passed before the West exploited the potato''s gifts to any significant extent, and nearly two more centuries elapsed before science could even explain what some of them were. Nevertheless, the Spanish should have paid more attention, because proof of the tuber''s remarkable character was all around them. First, anything that lives on the altiplano, windswept valleys and plateaus that lie at least twelve thousand feet above sea level, has to be hardy and tenacious. This is no less true for plants than for humans. The thin atmosphere lets the daytime sun radiate unimpeded but provides no insulation at night, causing radical temperature swings (highs of perhaps 62°F, lows of freezing or less) within a twenty-four-hour period. Not only does this constantly interrupt a plant''s physiological processes, it means that frost may occur in any season, the likelihood increasing with higher altitude. Half the year, little or no useful precipitation falls, and a shifting weather pattern may bring local drought for a year or more. Under such conditions, wheat, corn, and barley stand almost no chance of reaching maturity. Few trees grow, and most vegetation is close-lying and dwarflike. But the potato thrives. Its starchy tubers feed the plant during all but the most severe frosts, and during droughts up to seven and a half months. The hardiest species can cope with life at fifteen thousand feet, probably a world record for food crops. The potato grows in even the poorest soils and in every conceivable habitat, a precious benefit on the altiplano, where soils are thin and lack nutrients more common at lower altitudes. The domesticated potato also has more wild relatives, 230, than any other cultivated plant, whichallowed the early highland peoples to select varieties that fit local conditions. Similarly, since the mid-nineteenth century, Western plant breeders have profited from this array by introducing disease-and pest-resistant South American strains into European and North American stock. For good reason, the potato was the center of the altiplano diet. Arable land was scarce, generally arranged in narrow terraces from which farmers had to coax high yields without plows or draft animals. The potato met that need by bearing many tubers to a plant, tended only by a spade and human hands. Keeping and cooking food were also difficult, because fuel was even scarcer than land, and frost could ruin anything in storage. Potatoes, containing about 80 percent water, were particularly susceptible, but the highland peoples turned that to advantage. They let part of the harvest freeze overnight and squeezed the water out to obtain a freeze-dried preparation called chuño. Today, we think of fast-food potatoes as french fries, but chuño, whose recipe is at least several thousand years old, softened rapidly in boiling water and was quickly ready to eat. Unused, chuño stored in a sealed room for up to ten years, excellent insurance against famine. In addition, once on the table, the tuber gave superb value. Science now knows that the potato supplies all vital nutrients--including, in its fresh form, vitamin C--except calcium and vitamins A and D. One acre''s worth provides more than ten people with their annual energy and protein needs, something that can''t be said of corn, wheat, rice, or soybeans. This was what the Spanish brought home around 1570, waiting more than thirty years after they first happened on it. At that, the potato probably crossed the Atlantic as an afterthought, a curio stuffed in a pocket. Three years later, it began its European career, feeding patients in a Seville hospital. But had the Spanish only known it, the curio offered a map to Europe''s future, because in time, the potato would leave much the same mark as it had in the Andes. It would yield a huge amount of food on little arable land and in thinsoils, a boon to land-hungry peasants and a safeguard against famine. Since a spade was the only tool necessary, wage-laborers and even urban workers would raise potatoes in their gardens. (Even the spades would sometimes look like the taclla, and the planting beds resemble those at La Raya.) With milk or dairy products to furnish calcium and vitamins A and D, the potato would anchor a nutritionally complete diet that many Europeans would have lacked otherwise. The tuber would also prevent scurvy, benefiting populations that had little or no access to fruit. Finally, the potato would supply cheap, quick meals requiring little fuel or equipment--fast food again--qualities that accommodated lower-class kitchens especially. However, in European eyes, many of these advantages were the potato''s undoing, because it became known as food for the poor. In this case, the Conquistadores were partly to blame, though not because of their general reputation as loot-hungry brigands, blind to anything but overt wealth. Blind they were, but it''s hard to imagine anyone in 1570 predicting that the world''s annual potato harvest, today valued at more than $100 billion, would be a much richer haul than all the gold and silver the Spanish could take from South America. The very idea would have made any European laugh, even in the late eighteenth century, when the tuber''s potential became more apparent. Rather, the Spanish appraisal of the potato wasn''t a missed investment as much as it was social prejudice. They decided that if their New World underlings relied on the tuber, especially to replace bread, it must be inferior. The prejudice most often emerged indirectly, because, though the New World''s Spanish chroniclers rarely mentioned the potato, they usually did so to praise it. One called potatoes "a very good food," whose insides were like boiled chestnuts; another said they were "floury roots of good flavour." Only Bernabe Cobo, who thou

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