by Larry Zuckerman

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Potato by Larry Zuckerman

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865475786
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/25/1999
Edition description: 1ST NORTH
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,237,562
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Larry Zuckerman is a freelance editor and writer. He lives in Seattle with his wife and young son.

Read an Excerpt




... 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 thought the Peruvians would eat anything if it didn't hurt them, including "a thousand different kinds of repulsive vermin," dissented. He called potatoes one of several "very ordinary" foods that replaced bread—except when Spanish colonial women prepared them, and "the most delicious fritters" resulted.

Despite the potato's proven qualities, the general view was that it belonged to the conquered peoples, and they could keep it. Pedro de Cieza de Le6n, the most perceptive and sensitive Spanish observer, whose Chronicle of Peru (1553) was widely read, wrote how people "would go hungry if it were not for these dried potatoes," meaning chuño. Cieza approved of how the Inca state had collected chuño as tribute to secure itself against famine. Yet all his countrymen did with that knowledge was to use it against their subjects. When the Spanish discovered the fabulously rich Potosf silver lode in 1545, their merchants bought up chuño and resold it to the miners, who were little more than slaves. Cieza said many Spaniards made fortunes that way and went home prosperous men. One wonders whether they would have dared exploit a Spanish staple so brutally, but the substance of their actions and the timing reflect a certain contempt. Cieza was writing seventeen years before the potato reached Spain, which means that the merchants had no thought to bring the secret of their wealth back with them. Chuño was slaves' rations, and both it and the vegetable it came from were unfit for export.

Which explains why, seven decades after the Spanish saw their first potato and three after it had crossed the ocean, one chronicler of colonial life could call it "a delicacy to the Indians and a dainty dish even for the Spaniards." Not only was it newsworthy that the two peoples could share the same food, the comment implies that in Spain, the potato was still exotic and of doubtful worth. Almost thirty years later, a different historian recorded a similar remark. If Spanish readers needed to be repeatedly reminded that the tuber was good food, little had changed in nearly a century since the explorers stumbled on it.

A blanket disdain for indigenous foods doesn't explain the delay, because Spain was avid to adopt a different New World root. The sweet potato, a vine in the morning glory family, returned to Spainright away with Columbus, after his landfall at Haiti. From 1493 on, Spanish ships bound for Europe from Haiti and other points west carried sweet potatoes in their holds. A variety found in Darien (Panama) was brought to Hispaniola in 1508 and within eight years, Spain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella may have liked them enough to have had them planted in their court gardens. Their son-in-law, Henry VIII of England, liked them too, but for a reason they would have deplored: Supposedly, he thought the plant was an aphrodisiac.

If Henry believed that, he wasn't the only European who did, because the myth lasted far longer than his stormy marriages. The "venerous roots" from Spain supplied English banquets decades after the king's death, a fashion that Shakespeare's pen noted before the sixteenth century was out. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff, thinking he is about to bed two women at once, cries, "Let the sky rain potatoes"—and the date the play was written makes clear he's referring to the sweet kind.

Europe, and Spain in particular, chose the sweet potato over the Andean for social reasons. First, the all-important question of origin favored the sweet potato. It came from the lush Caribbean islands and the Central American isthmus, whereas the altiplano was a rude place whose barrenness aroused comment from every Spanish chronicler. The Spanish range most like it, the Pyrenees, has always been a poor region. Then, too, the sweet potato was a rich person's food because Spain was the only country whose climate supported its cultivation. Rareness and expense, besides that quality Henry VIII appreciated, lent it chic. Also, "the most delicate root that may be eaten," as the sixteenth-century English mariner and slave trader John Hawkins called it, suited European taste. Sweet novelties like vanilla and chocolate were just then coming into vogue. Cooks built meals around "sundry outlandish confections, altogether seasoned with sugar"—tarts, gingerbread, marzipan, jellies, conserves, and the like. Henry ate his sweet potatoes in heavily spiced and sugared pies, a fashion that survived at least until the 1680s.

The Andean potato had no patrons, no advocates, and no special powers (though its rival's occult reputation rubbed off on it through confusion). Rather, the Andean tuber reached Europe with a fateful verdict against it: Only the wretched eat this root. But if the Spanish handed down this judgment, other societies accepted and enlarged on it. Vestiges remain today. In 1991 the United States ranked fourth among the world's potato producers, and for many Americans, dinner isn't dinner without spuds. Yet ethnic jokes about potato-eating peoples remain current, as do mocking phrases like couch potato or potato head, and such expressions aren't unique to English. The French say that a sluggard has "potato blood," or that someone with two left feet "dances like a sack of potatoes." Such jokes are much tamer than references to slaves or amazement that upper and lower classes could share the same food. Nevertheless, the commentary comes from a common source, and its beginnings are four centuries old.


By 1600, after spending three decades in Europe, the potato had entered Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, and most likely Portugal and Ireland. But that impressive-sounding itinerary is deceptive, because in none of these eleven places had the wandering tuber found a true home. It was strictly a garden crop, unworthy of field cultivation alongside grains. Almost the only people who grew it were botanists, often not even in their own gardens, but those of their noble or wealthy patrons. Had these scientists not shared the tuber among themselves, it would have crossed fewer borders and left its imprint even later than it did. How ironic that a vegetable destined to mold and sustain lower-class life owed its initial presence to privileged caretakers. But where the botanists saw an intriguing plant, the people who needed it most, Europe's hungry peasantries, saw evil and refused to touch it.

This uncommon hatred began with the plant itself. As botanists described it, the potato of 1600 was a beautiful but savage-lookingthing about the size of a small bush. Its grooved, thick, slightly hairy stems grew anywhere from two or three feet tall to twice that height and shot out profuse foliage of pale green leaves. Within three months of spring planting, the branches split into two pedicels apiece, each supporting a few flowers that released a rich perfume. The blossoms, a striking bluish purple with crimson stamens, formed angular, five-sided stars about an inch across. As the plant matured, the flowers gave way to clusters of ridged, green berries, which turned either black or white and contained many flat, round seeds.

Meanwhile, mysterious workings were happening below ground. The main root had branched into a whitish network to which long, thick fibers were attached. By autumn, the fibers had sprouted tubers, sometimes fifty or more to a plant, but the biggest weighed no more than an ounce or two. All had rough skins, red or yellowish, and pitted with deepset eyes. The smallest were mere nodules. They had a thin white covering and looked as if they hadn't ripened. But large or small, the tubers possessed a strange power: If replanted, they sprouted.

To the layperson, all this was terrifying. For one thing, every other edible plant reproduced by means of seeds, not grotesque, misshapen tubers. Surely, the devil crafted that magic. Then there were the stems, which looked like the tomato's; the flowers, which took after the eggplant's; and the berries, which resembled the mandrake's and the deadly nightshade's. That composite sketch accused the potato of diabolic associations, and in 1596, the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin confirmed them by naming it Solanum tuberosum. Solanum is the eggplant genus—Bauhin was classifying by structure—but it was also a frightening word. It belongs to the family Solanaceae, the nightshades, whose members include, besides the tomato, eggplant, and sweet pepper, the deadly nightshade, mandrake, tobacco, and henbane. The name Solanum is believed to derive from the Latin solamen, or "quieting." If so, the meaning wasapt. The potato's more infamous siblings were poisons, narcotics, and witches' spells.

The mandrake was all three. Its forked root recalled a human shape and so accorded it mysterious powers, including the ability to help women conceive. The idea is at least as old as the book of Genesis, which recounts how Rachel asks Leah for mandrake roots to cure her barrenness. By the seventeenth century, the mandrake still had uses in women's medicine, reputedly hastening menstruation and expelling a stillborn child. But the plant was most renowned as a dangerous soporific. Shakespeare has Iago rank it among "the drowsy syrups of the world"; the herbalists agreed.

As for henbane and the deadly nightshade (or belladonna), they were noted poisons. Some people smoked henbane instead of tobacco, a substitution that made them giddy or put them in a stupor "but to little profit." Henbane and the deadly nightshade did find use in ointments. But the English herbalist John Parkinson, among many, pleaded for "heede and care" so that "children and others" wouldn't eat nightshade berries, "least you shall see the lamentable effects it worketh." What was more, the nightshade grew as tall as the potato, and other resemblances were well known. Most people didn't buy or read herbals, but that simply meant that if it took a trained eye to distinguish between the two plants, a prudent person would avoid both.

Ironically, modern science has shown that Europeans were right to approach the tuber with caution. Potatoes, like at least 350 Solanaceae, produce steroidal alkaloids whose properties affect members of every major taxonomic group from microbes to humans. The effect can cut two ways, a fact that medicine has exploited, in China as well as the West. Even henbane and the deadly nightshade have their uses, yielding hyoscyamine, from which the antispasmodic atropine is derived. How steroidal alkaloids behave in nature is only partly understood, but they seem to repel predators, a trait that geneticists are trying to harness. Nicotine, for instance, may deter certain insectsfrom eating tobacco leaves. Solanine, the potato's alkaloid, may protect tubers and foliage.

However, solanine is also toxic to humans. Healthy tubers cause no harm, but eating enough damaged or diseased potatoes can make a person ill. Because solanine concentrates in potato skins, careful peeling and trimming are generally all that even a greenish tuber, one that has been exposed to too much sunlight, needs.1 Nevertheless, the hesitation to consume the nightshade potato wasn't wholly misplaced. It has even been suggested that in eighteenth-century France, where certain kinds were said to taste bitter, solanine was the cause.

But if seventeenth-century Europeans followed any kind of logic in fearing the potato, they abandoned it in judging other nightshades. The tomato caused hesitation, but neither the eggplant nor the sweet pepper conjured up special terrors. Tobacco, arguably the most noxious nightshade that wasn't an outright poison, reached Europe about the time the potato did but won favor almost immediately. It, too, grew purplish-blue flowers like the belladonna's, and its harsh character was obvious. "'Tis one of Natures Extreams," remarked Thomas Tryon in The Way to Health in 1691. He added that only continual use could "destroy its poysonous Qualities" or inure anyone to them. Other English herbalists praised tobacco as an expectorant or, in liquid preparation, as a way of killing parasites and head lice. It also, so experts said, cured deafness if placed in the ears, and eased headaches, toothaches, and kidney stones.

Perhaps tobacco escaped the nightshade curse because smoking and taking snuff were expensive leisure activities, and potatoes were cheap and lower class. Still, even after harder truths about tobaccowere generally acknowledged, no sermons or medical advice could harm its reputation. Conversely, no publicity campaign or medical testimony could coax people to eat potatoes.

The tuber even suffered from comparison with the wicked weed. As late as 1869, the eminent art critic and social theorist John Ruskin called the potato the "scarcely innocent underground stem of one of a tribe set aside for evil." His dislike centered on tobacco, the "worst natural curse of modern civilization," because it encouraged idleness. Many Victorians held that sin against the potato, but Ruskin, known otherwise for progressive views, never got that far. The tuber offended him merely for its corrupt siblings.

Doubtless unwittingly, Ruskin singled out what had plagued the potato since its European debut. The "underground stem" was, in plain language, a root, and in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, root vegetables were scarcely innocent. They were said to prompt women to menstruate or lactate, and men to produce sperm. Not every herbalist ascribed the same properties to each root, though almost all said that roots provoked lust. The radish, the onion, the leek, the skirret (which resembled the carrot), the turnip, the parsnip, and the sweet potato were all given this ability. This explains why Henry VIII's taste for sweet potatoes wasn't just a royal whim.

Roots also upset the body, sending it into imbalance and therefore causing illness. The onion and leek, for instance, drew strong cautions. When Tryon said that onions sent poisonous fumes to the head, his warning was only one of a kind. Mid-seventeenth-century herbalists cautioned that pregnant women might give birth to lunatics if they ate too much "vaporous food," meaning onions or beans, or that the child might have a poor memory. Among the general population, such food was said to cause headaches and dull the senses. This was because the plants polluted the body. They increased the "evil blood," as did garlic, which would "offend the Brain" if used with indiscretion.

This was significant, because fevers and infectious diseases were thought to result from inflamed blood. If roots corrupted blood, it was only logical to say that they spread infectious disease. And around 1620 a rumor arose, reported of France, in England, and probably elsewhere, that potatoes caused leprosy. Why people fastened on "leprosy," a term the seventeenth century used for various skin diseases, is a mystery, unless the rough-skinned tuber evoked their symptoms. But even herbalists who reasoned that way about appearance and disease asserted that plants would cure the ailments or afflicted body parts they resembled, not cause the trouble. Besides, other roots prompted no such rumors—surely not the sweet potato, food of the rich.

All plagues have lower-class associations, but leprosy has always elicited something particularly untouchable or base, as the meaning of leper in common usage suggests. Whether the seventeenth century thought the vegetable suited the disease or the disease suited the vegetable didn't matter. The potato, tainted by affiliation, was fast becoming a leper itself. Accordingly, for more than two centuries, Europeans who adopted it were making a class statement about themselves, despite—and at times because of—the social and economic advantages they gained from it.

Copyright © 1998 by Larry Zuckerman

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Potato 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book's tongue-in-cheek title led me to expect an informative and entertaining history of one of the world's great foods. I discovered, rather, an informative but tediously boring history of the rural peasantry of Ireland, England and France during the 18th and 19th centuries. I can only recommend this book as a soporific potent enough to cure the most pernicious case of insomnia. If you get enough sleep, don't bother.