by Kate Heyhoe
Potatoes: The Peruvian Papa
How is it that a miracle plant, known first to the Incas as the papa, should today be a food staple from Ireland to Israel? Even though the amazing potato, chock full of nutrients, can now be found worldwide, our bud the spud has suffered quite a shaky history.
When the potato arrived in Europe from Peru, the welcome was anything but cordial. People treated it with disdain. Some believed that it was unfit for consumption because the Bible didn't mention it. Others feared it as deadly, being a member of the nightshade family. The potato, labeled as evil because it was not grown from seed, was blamed for leprosy, syphilis and other dread diseases. So bad was the perception of this goodly food that Russian peasants preferred to starve rather than be contaminated by the unclean potato.
If it wasn't for royalty and threats, the potato may never have been planted in Europe. Prussia's Frederick II recognized the value of the plant, and in 1744 he literally ordered his subjects to grow potatoes in the land which we know today as Germany. Those who objected were imprisoned. Sweden followed suit 20 years later, forcing their farmers to grow potatoes as well.
Wars are not healthy for children and other living things, but the potato's expanded popularity resulted directly from the Seven Years War, a worldwide battle (ending in 1763) which led to Frederick II's dominance in Europe. During the war, a French pharmacist and agronomist, Auguste Parmentier, was held prisoner in Prussia, and like other inmates, was fed largely on potatoes. He developed a fondness for the tuber and upon release, proclaimed its virtues to his homeland, inviting the elite image-makers of the day to his exclusive all-potato dinners. Many now classic potato dishes are named in his honor, including Potatoes Parmentier.
Meanwhile, the potato arrived early in the British Isles, taking root in Ireland in 1663. In fact, Irish colonists are credited with introducing the potato to North America in 1719. The Irish immediately embraced the plant and made it a mainstay of their diets. This was good and bad: the potato easily fed an entire nation, but when the potato crops were devastated by blight in the 1840's, the entire nation suffered a disastrous famine.
Potato recipes, especially potato pancakes, can be found in some variation or other throughout almost all cuisines today. Even in India, potatoes show up in turnover-like samosas. Jewish latkes, a traditional food of Hanukkah but also served year-round, originate from Central-Europe, and the Irish (as well as Swedish) make their own form of potato pancakes.
In honor of St. Paddy's Day and the Jewish holiday of Passover, I suggest you whip up these green and gold variations of potato pancakes—and raise a glass to toast the poor maligned potato, a terrific tuber with far-reaching roots!
Copyright © 1999, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created March 1999
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