Saga of the Spud

Part 1: The Transcontinental Potato

by Lauren Kessler

“What I say is that, if a fellow really likes potatoes, 
he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.” 
– A.A. Milne

Spanish conquistadors came to the New World looking for gold. What they found were the Inca, an empire 12 million strong, the largest civilization on the planet, master engineers of canals and aqueducts, suspension bridges and a 25,000-mile system of roads, superb stone masons, the visionaries, architects and builders of Machu Pichu. And, although this is not listed as one of the top ten achievements of this extraordinary civilization: the domesticators of the potato.  

The Inca had tamed and been farming a rainbow of wild Peruvian tubers many thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. A staple of their diet, the core of their diet, these potatoes originated high in the Andes and had learned to flourish in poor soil, thin air, and radical temperature changes. They were white, yellow, red, pink, black and purple; small and sweet, big and floury; tender, firm, buttery, bitter. Modern-day genetic testing of thousands of potato cultivars worldwide pinpoints a singular birthplace for all spuds: the Andean mountains, home of the Inca. Potatoes literally, fueled that great empire. The Inca cultivated them, created a cuisine around them, dried them (they invented freeze-drying), and stashed them in concealed bins for use in case of war or famine. They used them to create medicine. They buried them with their dead. 

Those of you who, like me, are enamored of the potato, who plan (and plant) in early spring, overwhelmed and overjoyed with the choices–the Yukon Golds, the Red Pontiacs and the Adirondack Blues, the French fingerlings, the German butterballs and the Austrian Crescents—those of you who, in the fall dig for potatoes as if panning for gold…you…I have little doubt will be fascinated by this quick romp through spud-centric horticultural history. As for the rest of you? At the end of this little essay, the first in a four-part exclusive series for Farmer-ish—”The Sage of the Spud”—I hope to make spudniks out of you. 

Consider this: Potatoes are the No. 1 vegetable crop in the United States, and the third most important crop in the world in terms of food consumption. They yield four times more food per acre than rice or corn and provide more protein and more food energy per acre than wheat. Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries depend on potatoes for their survival. More than 156 countries produce potatoes, and more than a billion people worldwide eat them as an important part of their diet. And here’s a surprise: The country that consumes the most rice on the planet also grows the most potatoes. Yes, China.

And now to rejoin the saga: The spud makes its way from the highlands of Peru to Europe sometime in the mid-1500s aboard a Spanish ship, possibly brought over as a souvenir or curio. It begins its European life with an image problem born of the prejudice of the conquerors. The accomplished, masterful Inca, who not onlybuilt a “wonder of the world,” but were, themselves, wonders of the world, were considered savages by the Spaniards. If the tuber was the staple of savages, of conquered people, how could it be part of a respectable European diet? 

Later in the 1500s, Sir Walter Raleigh, the British explorer, returned from his failed colony in Roanoke to plant New World potatoes. As in the southern hemisphere, potatoes had been part of the North American indigenous peoples’ diet for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived, not just wild-harvested but domesticated and planted. (These were, we now know, relatives of the Peruvian spuds.) Sir Walter, a fan of the potato, planted his New World haul on 40,000 acres of land near Cork, the first planting in the country, Ireland, that would make the potato both famous and infamous. 

But his horticultural efforts made little headway on the continent. Potatoes, when they were grown, were fed to hogs. Wherever the potato was introduced as food for the table—Italy, Belgium, Germany, Austria, England, France–it was slandered. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing leprosy, syphilis, sterility, rampant sexuality and early death, perhaps not in that order. There was so much opposition to the potato that anti-potato edicts were passed in France, like this one: “In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it.”The French government actually passed a law making it illegal to eat potatoes. 

But it was, in fact, a Frenchman who finally made the potato respectable. Army pharmacist Antoine-Austin Parmentier, captured by the Prussians during the Seven Year War, was fed a potato-only diet in prison—and survived. Back in France, he pursued pioneering studies in food chemistry that showed the potato was healthy and nutritious, and based on this research, the Paris Faculty of Medicine declared potatoes fit for human consumption. Parmentier promoted the potato as an inexpensive way to feed the hungry and persuaded Louis XVI to allow him to plant spuds on 100 unpromising acres of royal land. The potato gained a noble pedigree. Local farmers took note, and a new crop took hold in the countryside.

But Parmentier, a tireless proselytizer and clever promoter, was only just getting started. He mounted a series of publicity stunts to elevate and celebrate the humble potato. including a potato-only feast in 1783. His guests included Benjamin Franklin, then the U.S. Minister to France, along with the man who would become the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. They feasted on a banquet of 20 potato-centric dishes. Both men were suitably impressed. A copy of Parmentier’s treatise on the potato found its way to Jefferson’s library at Monticello. And that is not all the potato goodness that Jefferson brought back with him from France, as you will see in Saga of the Spud, part deux. 

And now, a few recipes:

Tocosh, a traditional Peruvian potato recipe, also known as “Incan penicillin.” 

Place many pounds of white potatoes in a bag of straw and grass and submerge in spring water. Leave for 12-24 months. Remove the now fermented potatoes, dry in the sun, and mash into a pulp. The pulp can be used to make puddings or ground into flour, but its primary use is and has been for millennia as an anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory treatment. (FYI: Amazon sells Tocosh capsules)

Papa a la Huancaína

For those with no hay who want to consume a Peruvian specialty more immediately (as in, not 18 months from now), there is papa a la Huancaína: boiled yellow potatoes covered with a spicy cheese sauce and accompanied by garnishes. It can be served either cold or at room temperature.

½ cup aji amarillo paste (medium-hot Peruvian yellow pepper)
2 T vegetable oil
1 cup evaporated milk
4 plain crackers
8 oz. queso fresco (fresh white cheese)
Iceberg lettuce leaves
6 yellow potatoes, boiled and peeled
Black olives

3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut in slices
Parsley sprigs

  1. Put the aji amarillo paste in a blender, add oil and milk, and process with the crackers, queso fresco, and salt, until smooth.
  2. On four plates arrange lettuce leaves and thick slices of potato. Cover with a few tablespoons of the sauce.
  3. Garnish with black olives, hard-boiled eggs, and parsley.

Hachis Parmentier, a kind of shepherd’s pie, named after you-know-who, has been on French restaurant menus since the 1830s) 

2 onions (chopped)
4 cloves garlic (minced)
2 T butter and olive oil combination
1 ½ c chopped fresh tomatoes (or canned)
1 ½ lbs lean ground beef 
2 T herbs de Provence
¼ tsp nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1 egg yolk
½ c bread crumbs (divided)
4-5 cups mashed potatoes (Russets are good)
¾ c grated gruyere

  1. In a large frying pan, sauté the onions and garlic in the butter/ olive oil combination on medium heat 
  2. Stir in the tomatoes, ground beef, herbs, salt and pepper. Cook until the meat is browned.
  3. Remove from heat and add egg yolk and ¼ c breadcrumbs. Mix. 
  4. Spread the meat in the bottom of a lightly oiled 9 x 13 oven proof dish.
  5. Spread the potatoes on top of the meat mixture. Sprinkle with remainder of bread crumbs and the grated cheese.
  6. Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until top is browned

photo credit: Immo Wegmann, Unsplash