The “Irish” potato we all know and (mostly) love actually had its birth in the Andean Mountains of South America. First cultivated over 6,000 years ago near Lake Titicaca (the world’s highest), bordering Peru and Bolivia, the Aymara Indians developed over two hundred varieties on the Titicaca Plateau at elevations above 10,000 feet.
The influence of the potato encompasses all of Inca culture: it is buried along with their dead; Incas counted units of time in relation to how long it took for a potato to cook to various consistencies; potatoes were even used to divine the truth and predict weather; it was also believed to have medicinal properties and was rubbed on the skin of the sick. The Peruvian Quechua language records more than 1,000 words to describe potatoes and potato varieties! These peoples are also the innovators of the freeze-dried potato, or chuño, which is still made the traditional way.
The white, or “Irish” potato (Solanum tuberosum) which we speak of here (colloquially known in North America as a “spud”) was unknown in Central or North America until Pizarro conquered Peru and spread their potato culture via Spanish forts and ships. However, sweet potatoes were used in the West Indies and Central America and in the Southern part of North America. Known as “batatas”, they were referenced in the journals of Columbus and Magellan. The word ‘potato’ known in Spanish as ‘patata’ is in fact derived from that word ‘batata’. Planting tubers remains the most important activity of the farming year throughout regions near Lake Titicaca, where the potato is known as Mama Jatha, or mother of growth.
The potato’s first stop in the “Old World” was in Spain around 1570. Spanish conquistadors carried the Peruvian staple as food on their long journeys back and forth during the mid-16th century. From here the potato spread across Europe. However one must acknowledge that Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh also had a hand in the potato’s spread, taking some from South America and planting them on his estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal around 1590. “In fact, Legend has it that Sir Raleigh made a gift of potatoes to Queen Elizabeth I, and she in turn hosted a royal banquet which featured the potato in every course of the meal. Unfortunately, the cooks didn’t have experience with the potatoes and threw out the tubers (what we eat and usually picture a potato as being), while they kept and cooked the leaves and stems. As with other members of the family Solanaceae aka nightshade, the leaves and stems of the potato plant are poisonous. The royal banquet attendees became deathly ill, and as a result, the potato was banned from further use (Stradley 2004).” Also it is important to point out that unripe spuds contain a substance called solanine which can impart a bitter taste, and even cause illness in humans.
While in Ireland the potato gained acceptance from the bottom up… potato quickly becoming the staple in the Irish diet. Irish immigrants introduced the potato to New England in 1719 as they settled in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Popularity for the potato came during the Industrial Revolution, as there came a demand for cheap, energy-rich, non-cereal foods to keep labour-intensive operations going. Unfortunately, the crop was so heavily depended upon that when a fungus destroyed the potato crop in Ireland, in what became known as the Irish Potato Famine, the results were catastrophic. It is estimates that between 1845 and 1851, over 1,500,000 Irish people died, while another 1,000,000 fled, chiefly to the USA. Hence the potato helped change America’s ethnic & social landscape.
Meanwhile, backtracking somewhat in our potato journey, Fredrick the Great of Prussia promoted the consumption of potatoes throughout his domain. Consequently, the French intellectual, Antoine-August Parmentier, having been a prisoner in Prussia during the Seven Years War (1756-63) made it his personal mission to popularize the potato, which at that time had been largely regarded in France as animal feed. Parmentier knew of the productive capacity of the potato and how to create a host of meals from this single ingredient. He acquired a drab and unproductive spot of land on the outskirts of Paris where he planted 50 acres of potatoes and posted guards over it. This naturally attracted much public curiosity. In the evenings the guards were taken off-duty, giving the locals a chance to see what the fuss was about. With all the “protection” surrounding the crop, peasants assumed they must be very valuable and eventually “obtained” some potatoes from the plot, developing it in their own gardens. Parmentier would also hosted banquets highlighting potato dishes inviting guests such as legendary American statesman Benjamin Franklin, who enjoyed the meal so much that spread the word to the “New World” – funnily enough the “New World” was the place the Spanish had gotten the potatoes from in the first place. What’s more, “French Fries” officially arrived in the United States of America when Thomas Jefferson served them at the White House during his presidency of 1801-1809.
Today, a great many dishes are made with potato as the most prominent ingredient. Parmentier’s name lives on in two dishes: potage parmentier and pommes parmentier.