Although the exact numbers are unknowable, approximately one million people perished in the infamous Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849. The immediate cause of the famine was the decimation of the potato from “The Blight.” Blight is a generic term for a wide spectrum of plant diseases. The magnitude of this one won it the dubious distinction of being preceded by “The.” In the case of the Irish Potato Famine a particular strain of water mold, so called because of its ability to flourish under humid conditions, was the culprit. However, a variety of other social, economic and political forces significantly contributed to the famine, not the least of which was the British government’s discriminatory laws regarding land division aimed at the Irish Catholics. The British hoped to force conversion to Protestantism via strictly controlling the bequeathing of land.
The potato was introduced to Ireland probably in the late 16th century. Some credit Sir Walter Raleigh who planted potatoes on Irish lands bestowed to him from Queen Elizabeth I in 1589. Other sources purport that Ireland’s introduction to the potato more likely arose from trade with Spain. Either way, by the 17th century the potato had become Ireland’s primary food crop. In fact, the majority, if not all of the arable land sowed by most families, (particularly the lower classes), was allocated to the potato. Therefore, when disaster struck, the Irish were left will little or no secondary foodstuffs to fall back on.
Ireland’s over-reliance on the potato emanated from multiple sources. First, the aforementioned British laws regarding land ownership resulted in the repeated subdivision of large tracts of land. Many people were left were very limited plots to feed their family. Acre for acre, the potato produces more food energy than most other crops. It is also relatively easy to grow and amenable to a variety of growing conditions. Thus the potato became the most logical choice, albeit at the risk of placing all of one’s eggs in one basket.
A potato is a tuber. A tuber is the part of a rhizome that serves as the storage organ of the plant i.e., where the plant maintains its energy reserves. A rhizome is the underground stem of a plant.
Potatoes, of which there are thousands of varieties, originated in the Andes Mountains of South America. They were first cultivated by the Incas 7,000 – 10,000 years ago. Somewhere in the mid 16th century, but probably at least by 1570, the potato was brought back to Spain from the conquistadors who were plundering South America. It found its way to The American colonies in the early 1600’s.
The potato, like eggplants and tomatoes are members of the nightshade family which does contain some poisonous plants. For this reason, many Europeans concluded the potato was equally toxic and it was initially shunned. Sir Walter Raleigh is also credited with helping to dispel this myth. Be it Raleigh’s interventions or not, the potato gradually made its way throughout Europe. Nevertheless, superstition dies hard. Even after there was overwhelming evidence that the potato was safe to consume, many French still perceived it as unfit for human consumption into the 19th century.
Eventually the “poisonous” potato became credited as staving off starvation in Europe, despite the Irish Potato Famine. Indeed, if you eliminate blight and the aforementioned destructive social policies, you are left with a vegetable that is an agricultural and nutritional godsend. The famous economist Adam Smith, in his classic 1776 work “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” noted that land devoted to the potato yields triple the nutrient value of wheat. The potato was even touted as fueling the Industrial revolution.
The potato is now planted all over the world and is the 4th most important global food crop behind wheat, corn, and rice. Potato production is increasing the world over, particularly in Asia, Africa, and in its homeland, South America. China is currently the world’s leading producer.
Potatoes are quite nutritious. They contain no fat or cholesterol, and are a good source of Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, potassium and fiber. An average potato contains 25 mg. of carbohydrate and thus, only 100 calories. Skin-eating proponents hail the skin as the healthiest part but the only added benefit of the skin is additional fiber.
You may have heard that the green spots on potatoes are toxic. Many myths contain a kernel of truth and the age-old superstition about potatoes being poisonous actually has one of those kernels. The green spots on potatoes are a chemical called solanine that occurs when potatoes are exposed to excessive light. It’s bitter tasting and toxic in high dosages, far beyond what is found in your average potato, especially since potatoes are screened for solanine content. Simply peel any green spots away when preparing potatoes. Of course this option is eliminated if you, (yuk), like the skin.
Choose potatoes that are firm and smooth, devoid of wrinkles, soft spots, blemishes, or green coloration. Store all potatoes in a cool dark place, ideally between 45 and 50 degrees. At this temperature they can last for weeks. Use room-temperature-stored potatoes within one week. Never put potatoes in the refrigerator. At refrigerator temps the starch will convert to sugar altering their taste and causing them to darken when cooked.
This is the first article in a trilogy dedicated to the potato. In the next edition of “Food for Thought” we’ll discuss the different types of potatoes, the characteristics and culinary uses of each, and the almost endless ways that potatoes can be cooked. The final segment will be devoted to potato recipes.