Books by Barbara Bamberger Scott


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The Humble Spud


From Inca to Ireland to Idaho


by Barbara Bamberger Scott

Let’s be honest.  It really doesn’t look like something you’d want to eat.

Line your driveway with it, sure.  Throw it at a groundhog, definitely.

But eat?  That lumpy brown thing with EYES?  I don’t think so.

In my twenties, I learned how to grow potatoes in a sack, and came to love their lumpy, newly excavated appearance and earthy odor.  But it was a long time after that before I learned the twisted, tragic, ultimately triumphant tale of the humble spud.

Let it be said, my first introduction to the potato was hardly unpleasant.  Mashed, boiled or baked, it was a mainstay of post-World War II nutrition in all Western countries.  In our southern home it was a requirement on the supper plate.  In the North Carolina mountains, my husband-to-be, then a mere child whose red hair and surname announced his Celtic origins and his innate kinship with the potato, believed that there were only two varieties of potato: the red and the Arsh.  Years later he realized that this latter designation was Hill-speak for “Irish.”

But long before the potato became America’s favorite starch, and centuries before it made it to Ireland, South America alone cherished the humble spud.

The Incas, whose civilization prospered for hundreds of years and vanished as soon as the Spanish came to plunder, revered potatoes.  They lived in the high Andes Mountains with freezing temperatures and scarcely a drop of rain all year round.  Their potatoes were purple, blue, red or yellow, small and gnarled.  They forgave the tubers their ugliness and invented ways to store them for years at a time, a hedge against famine and a great snack for a trek.  Though we do not admire the Incas for their ritual child sacrifice, in most ways theirs was an enviable society.  Their wealth in gold was so abundant that no one tried to guard it, and though they never invented a wheel, they had a road system that was so well constructed and far-flung, it’s almost as if they had envisioned automobile travel.  It is believed that they cultivated up to 3,000 varieties of potatoes in terraced beds in the highest Andean peaks.  In deep trenches where the bottom layers of soil replicated warmer climates, with stair-step levels to facilitate irrigation, these sandal-footed horticulturalists developed potatoes suitable for every region of their empire, which comprised most of the western coast of the South American continent.

The Inca product chuñu was the world’s first “instant potatoes” – frozen spuds were trampled on to get rid of excess water, then dried in the sun to make potato flour that could be stored for years.  All they lacked was a catchy jingle, and it’s possible they had that; since they lacked a written language we’ll never know.  To say the Incas worshipped the potato would probably be stretching a point, but they did put the starchy lumps in the graves of their dead -- what could be more reviving for that final journey than gnawing on a potato?

The Incas were conquered by the Spanish who fervently believed that God wanted them to kill anyone they couldn’t baptize, or, if necessary, baptize them and then kill them.  Assured that the Incas were mere savages compared to themselves, they made few efforts to preserve or even examine Incan culture, and so the high art of potato cultivation was lost.  Today we are sure of only about 40 of the 3,000 varieties that once flourished in the Andes.

At this point in our story, the humble spud is still in Inca.  So how did it get a ticket out?  It seems to have sneaked out of Peru under an alias: batata, the Spanish name for ipomea, or sweet potato.

The Spaniards brought the batata (later renamed papa) to Europe around 1570, using it only to feed people in hospitals.  But most healthy people found it hideous, and anything hideous must be a tool of Satan.  The educated classes were sure it was to be avoided because it is of the family solanum which also includes the toxic deadly nightshade.  Most Protestants would not eat it because it was not in their Bible, and Catholics only consented to its consumption after a priest had blessed it.  This was not an auspicious beginning to the potato’s life in the so-called civilized world.

Europeans have long been meat-obsessed, convinced that without a slab of cow or a joint of pig on the plate, they will surely perish.  It took Sir Walter Raleigh, who was greeted with consternation when he brought back potatoes instead of precious metals from the New World, to demonstrate that the spud is as good as whatever it’s eaten with.  He started a potato-and-beef-gravy craze that swept through the elite classes with a fervor unmatched until the invention of the iPad.  Thomas Jefferson, on his side of the ditch, also championed the potato.  But in the main it languished for a couple hundred years as food for peasants and fodder for swine.

By the late 1700s, the Irish, not exactly by choice, lived on the humble spud – before it killed them.  They would be somewhat justified in believing that the potato was foisted upon them as a way of wiping them out.  It has been referred to, often, as an instrument of British genocide.

The Irish in question were those who, by opting for the wrong politicians and the wrong religion or by incautiously ignoring the whole thing, were living in on a muggy windswept island in crowded conditions and dire poverty.  They had once, it is believed, lived on oats, but climatic conditions had made grain cultivation impossible.  So they welcomed the starchy, vitamin rich tubers, which, legend has it, tumbled off the defeated, listing vessels of the Spanish Armada, bringing bad luck with them as they hit the green shores of Erin.

The Irish saw not only the potato’s nutrition potential, but the energy gain in husbandry, requiring no back breaking labor at all.  They literally threw the spud eyes into what were called, possibly satirically, lazy beds -- banked up hills of earth and nitrogenous waste with ditches at each end for drainage -- of any size according to the size of the farmer’s plot.  This left the Irish free to fiddle and frolic (as the English sneeringly supposed), able to scoop food out of their compost once a year, store it underground for the coming year, and fill up the lazy bed again come spring.  This happy marriage of filling mono-diet and lackadaisical husbandry held together for many years.

Until 1845.

Continued on page 2   >



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