Controversial, life-changing and versatile— the potato has truly shaped our world.
How exactly did that lovely baked potato sitting on your plate go from a staple of the Andean diet to a world power? Well, the potato has a lot going for it. First, it resides underground. Since it is not dependent on a stalk for production—above ground and exposed—it is quite prolific and can grow in size. Second, you don’t need to dig it up and store it unlike corn and other grains. In the past, potato crops were left in the ground and harvested when needed (as long as the ground temperature remained above 27 degrees F.). This ground storage proved quite lifesaving from anyone planning to steal your food, as it was much more difficult to dig up and steal a crop of potatoes, as opposed to the grains that had to be harvested and stored for the winter. Lastly, potatoes are a nutritious, prolific food source. Yields can be quite large with the potato and the crop is relatively easy to grow when compared to others.
Before potatoes were introduced to Europe, the world looked much different than it does now. Famine was common. Charles C. Mann, author of How the Potato Changed the World from Smithsonian Magazine said, “Before the potato (and corn), before intensive fertilization, European living standards were roughly equivalent to those in Cameroon and Bangladesh today. On average, European peasants ate less per day than hunting-and-gathering societies in Africa or the Amazon.”
Simply said, Europeans could not feed their populations and witnessed multiple famines until the arrival of the large, nutrient affluent potato. Finally, Europe could be fed.
The potato originated in the Peruvian Andes of South America, with archeological records dating back to 2500 B.C. It is believed that this power to feed large numbers of people with relative ease gave rise to the Incan empire. Replete with gold and silver, it was quite the thriving society until the Spanish arrived. The Spanish took what they could, left the South Americans dying of unknown illnesses, and brought the potato (and gold and silver) back to Europe with them. It took a while for this strange vegetable to catch on. Many were resistant of the fact that it did not have to be grown from a seed. Some claimed it was an aphrodisiac (not a positive attribute back then). Others said it was the cause of leprosy. Eventually, it won over the poor as they were finally able to feed their families and pull themselves out of poverty. This led to the growing power of Europe. With people fed, these societies were able to thrive.
The one drawback to this magnanimous crop was the lack of diversity. In the Andes, the diversity of potatoes, even to this day, is so extensive (over 5,000 different species) that some varieties remain unidentified. This diversity has protected their crops from mass failure. A crop killer may move in, but it will not affect every plant the same way; diversity ensures that some varieties will survive. Potatoes are grown from cutting of the “eyes,” or sprout, from the potato itself; they are essentially clones. Only a few varieties were brought to Europe from Peru, which led to a monoculture: only one predominant variety of potato was grown. So when the mold Phytophthora infestans, otherwise known as the “vexing plant destroyer,” found its way to Europe, it essentially wiped out the vast majority of potato crops in Europe. No one was hit harder than Ireland, causing the Potato Famine, leaving millions dead and millions immigrated. To this day, it is still one of the worst famines in history; leaving Ireland the only country less populated today than it was in 1845.
The potato thrives in cooler climates, which is great news for us gardeners on the North Shore. The days of the monoculture are behind us, and therefore multiple varieties are available. Potatoes can be started from seed, but cutting out the sprouting parts of an existing tuber is the easiest way to begin your potato patch. This prolific crop can be planted as soon as you can work the soil in spring. It is important to plant these sprouting potatoes four to five inches deep, and to remember to continue to cover the emerging potatoes with compost, soil or straw as the plant grows throughout the summer.
Nutritionally, potatoes have received a bad rap. This has really done this nutritious root vegetable a disservice. It is high in carbohydrates, but at around 100-150 calories. It also provides some protein, as well as a wealth of nutrients such as vitamin B and C, potassium, magnesium, iron and zinc. It can be used in a variety of dishes, and it has been used medicinally to calm the intestines and reduce inflammation.
Warm Potato Salad with Bacon-Mustard Dressing
2 pounds potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
1 medium onion, cut in 1/2-inch slices
2 medium apples, peeled and sliced
3 slices of bacon
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Coat a roasting pan with butter or oil. Toss potatoes with olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Place on roasting pan in a single layer and roast for 10 minutes. Scatter onions on top of potatoes and roast another 10-15 minutes. Stir in apple slices and roast another five minutes more.
While roasting, cook bacon in a skillet until crisp. Drain on paper towel and crumble. Whisk vinegar and mustard together with a little salt and pepper into bacon drippings in the skillet, off heat, scraping up all brown bits.
Drizzle apples and vegetables with dressing, top with crumbled bacon. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves 10.
By Kim Falter