Potato, the misunderstood.

Potato flowers. Source: Wikipedia

When thinking of potatoes, what usually comes to mind? Is it French fries, chips or curry? As a temperate crop, the potato may have been introduced to Taiwan in the 17th century, along with the Netherlanders and Spanish; French fries came later in 1984, when Mcdonald’s started conquering our stomachs, allowing us to realize that potatoes could be deep fried to make fries. The name French fries, however, is a misnomer; during World War I fries were brought back to America from Europe, Americans wrongfully calling it “French” fries when they were in fact invented and taken from Belgium! To prevent further misunderstanding, Belgium has applied to the UNESCO to list fries as a world heritage in 2015. Potato chips, though, are American’s invention through and through. In the early 1850s, George Crum, a chef in New York state, angered by a customer who kept insisting that his fried potatoes were too thick and too soft, cut them extremely thin, deep-fried them, then seasoned them with extra salt, to which said customer, much to his surprise, loved, resulting in the popular potato chips we know today.

Besides the Incas, Americans are arguably the biggest potato lovers; they eat French fries, potato chips, roasted potatoes, they even play with them! The plastic Mr. Potato Head we see in the Toy Story movie series, is a popular toy in United States. Invented by George Lerner, it was in fact a real potato back in 1949, and officially hit the markets in 1952 by Hasbro, with thumbtacked facial features and mustache! It was restructured later in 1964 due to safety hazards concerning thumbtacks and its storage difficulties. It is also the first toy which was advertised on TV of the world.

Wild potatoes are about the size of a pinky, containing poisonous solanine, and so should be handled with caution. Ancient Incas developed a technique similar to freeze-drying to remove the toxins and bitter taste, making the potato edible. It is winter in the Andes around April to September and the temperature difference can be over 30 degrees Celsius. Every June and July, people let the potatoes out during the day and the night. During the night, the temperature would drop below zero so potatoes are frozen solid; then they will thaw during the day. After several days, potatoes would turn soft, then they step on the potatoes to squeeze the water out. This process is repeated several times everyday, then potatoes are left outside to be sun-dried. In the end, the water content of potatoes is down from only less than one-tenth of the fresh potatoes, and they are called chuño or moraya. Modern day domesticated potatoes have a very low composition of solaline, but once it starts budding, the level of solaline will increases about 5–6 times. Solaline is heat-stable so you should throw away your potatoes when they are turning green.

Potato is originated from the Altiplano Plateau between Peru and Bolivia, at an altitude of 4,000 meters, locals started eating and cultivating it around 8,000 BC. Due to its high altitude origins, the potato is much more cold resistant than wheat, corn, and rice. Local residents grow potatoes for their staple food, thus giving birth to Tiahuanaco civilization and Inca civilization. The Incas worshipped potatoes, naming it “Kausay”, which means “substance that sustains life”; in their legends the Mother of Earth or Land (Pachamana) is also the goddess of potatoes (Axomama).

Potatoes were imported to Spain in the 16th century, the Age of Discovery. Unlike barley and wheat, the potato’s edible parts are underground; combined with its rugged bud-eyed surface caused rumors that “eating potatoes caused leprosy”, up until Frederick the Great of Prussia decided to promote potatoes to solve the food shortage caused by cold weather from Little Ice Age. By holding tasting events, and even passing legislation that farmers must subside one-tenth of their land to grow potatoes, the potato became more and more accepted among the common folk. During the late 18th century, Germany became one of the most powerful countries in Europe due to the potato, as they had escaped the impending doom that was shortage of wheat crop resulting from cold damage.

French get acquainted with potatoes much later. Potato was an ornamental plant at first. The wife of Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette of French, would wear potato flowers to banquets. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier had his first taste of potato when he was captured by the German during Seven Years’ War. He started his campaign with the help from Louis XVI — they set up a garden out of Paris, with a sign said “This Garden is reserved for the King’s precious crops. Whoever steal them would be punished.” They also send guards to protect them only during the day. As a result, the local farmers grew more and more curious and come in to steal potatoes during the night.

Potatoes rolled into Ireland in the late 17th century. Its ability to thrive in barren soil and adapt to Ireland’s climate made it a popular crop among the Irish, becoming the country’s main crop. But in the mid-19th century, phytophthora that plagued potatoes caused a widespread famine throughout Ireland, millions died while 1,500,000 people were forced to immigrate to other countries.

Many of them immigrated to United States. They already carried a grudge toward the British because of the Penal Law(1695–1820), the failure of help during the Great Famine (1845–1849) made many of them dislike British deeply. Most of the Irish immigrants chose to stay in the northeastern states of U.S. and their views gradually change the American’s opinion towards British, especially WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Henry Hobhouse suggested that they could have even influenced the 16th presidential election, making Abraham Lincoln elected instead of John C. Breckinridge, a typical WASP.

Potatoes were introduced to Taiwan in 1682 by missionary. It did not attract much attention because the climate in Taiwan is too hot for it. It mostly grow in Yunlin, Taichung and Chiayi as of 2017.

Hard to imagine that potatoes could have so many stories when munching on French fries and chips, isn’t it?

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.