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