Monday, February 8, 2021

We All Dig This Vegetable

Good morning from Spirit Bird Farm.

Everyone loves them.

Boiled, steamed, mashed, baked, and fried. In stews, in soups, in salads, as chips, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They even turn up in desserts and other bakery goods in the form of starch and flour. For everyday meals, as well as holiday meals. Some of the best comfort food around. They've infiltrated nearly every one of the world's cuisines in about 500 years, although many Europeans initially thought they were poisonous. They are among the top most important food crops of the world, right up there with wheat, rice and maize (corn). They had become such an important crop in the 1800s that when Ireland experienced a widespread crop failure, famine ensued, killing maybe a couple of million people. A few decades later, Luther Burbank developed a variety resistant to the fungus that killed the Irish crop... potato blight.

Ah, yes, the ubiquitous potato. 

Let me take you back, to the very beginning....

The story of the lovely potato begins when the line that developed into our mashers split off from the parent line of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family a long, long time ago... 350 million years ago to be precise. Maybe not precisely. Dinosaurs weren't good at keeping records, what with their focus mainly being on eating other dinosaurs and/or NOT being eaten by other dinosaurs. They figure this out through deeply studying genes. I don't know how they determine it... by magic is my guess... but they can make a good guess.


The story is foggy after that. But at some point the Incas or their predecessors in the Andes region of South America began gathering the tiny, but tasty and nutritious tubers as food, maybe as early as 8000 BCE. Archaeological evidence, however is not quite that old. I couldn't find reliable accounts of what the oldest archaeological evidence shows -- some sources said 3400 BCE, some 2500 BCE and one just 400 BCE. Regardless of the archaeological evidence, we know that the Andean natives have used and cultivated potatoes (about 20 different species) for a long, long time... developing thousands of varieties, most of which continue to be grown only in their native region.

Those early potatoes and many of those still grown in Peru, were much smaller than the large tubers of the species Solanum brevicaule now grown worldwide. In my search for information about potato's history, I found so much more written about it's introduction to Europe than about its use by the native people of South America. The Spaniards introduced the potato to Europe around the mid 1500s, but most of Europe resisted it as a food crop because of its relationship to the poisonous nightshades (the tomato also suffered this). 

The aristocracy of some of the European countries recognized the value of the potato as a food source, because of its nutritional and caloric density and its ease of growth. So they worked, sometimes using a little subterfuge, to convince the agricultural class to grow and consume potatoes. The little tricks worked, but for the most part potatoes were considered working class food, except in China, where it became a delicacy of the Imperial family. Go figure.

Then a little fungus caused the Irish potato famine, where it had replaced the rutabaga and turnip as a staple crop. And can you blame the Irish? I like turnips and rutabagas, but given the choice between them and potatoes... guess which wins.

So that's enough of that. You can find that stuff anywhere. But I had to look in a lot of places for info on the Inca use. The Incas apparently thought quite highly of their potatoes, even making pottery vessels in the shape of the tubers, which looked more like the fingerling varieties of today. They used them as medicine and possibly even in religious ceremonies. I believe that the ancient people of the Americas held their food plants in much higher regard than we do today, considering them spiritual allies. 

According to most of the history I found, the potato was first grown in North America in the 1600s, introduced by European settlers, of course.


Recent archaeological discovery has uncovered that North American indigenous people used a species of potato more than 10,000 years ago. Starch grains on stone tools found at a site in Utah were identified as belonging to that of a potato, S. jamesii. That predates evidence of potato use in South America. What's more, that potato species still grows in North America, in the Four Corners area of Arizona, thus it's called the Four Corners potato. Indigenous people there still use the little tuber.

The next time you sit down to a helping of mashed potatoes, thank the Incas and their predecessors for discovering the delicious goodness of potatoes. They are "Inca" potatoes in truth, not Irish at all.

NOTE: I did not intend to make this blog post all about the history of potatoes. I was supposed to put some growing information in here. I promised the readers of my newspaper column a link to the K-State Research and Extension publication on growing potatoes in Kansas. So here is the growing potatoes link. It looks like I will need to do another post for all of you wanting to know more about growing them. Maybe I'll wait until I'm planting my own potatoes, for the first time in many years, then you can follow my experiences on that. Or I'll do my next post on them so I can let you know about their awesome nutritional value and tell you how to make the best baked fries.

No comments: