Potato - A Beloved American Food
By Victoria Landis / November, December 2012
Among the delicious array of foods we eat at Thanksgiving is the humble potato in all varieties -- Idahos, russets, reds, whites, yams, and sweet potatoes. Whipped into soufflés. Layered with marshmallows. Baked into pies. Kneaded into bread dough. The image of creamy, fluffy, mashed potatoes swimming in butter and gravy says home to Americans in a way those upstart pretenders to the throne, like jicama and quinoa, could never hope to duplicate or understand.
Of course, it also says heart bypass surgery, but that's not the innocent potato's fault. And jicama and quinoa technically were domesticated food stuffs long before spuds, but we Americans tend to not know that. It's a rare occasion when we allow facts to get in the way of a good story.
The history of this bland starchy staple is probably not something you've thought much about. Until recently, neither had I. But that was before my brother decided to go on a quest.
My brother's doctorate is in nutrition. How seriously does he take his job? Last year, he gave a distinguished lecture on the tomato. When my teenaged son saw the invitation/announcement, he, quite literally, didn't know if it was a joke. I told him his uncle was an intense vegetable scholar, indeed. I'm glad my brother didn't see the glazed look of disbelief. My brother's kids call him Dr. Vegetables. A quick note to fact-check nerds -- to save you the helpful and informative email you no doubt were already composing in your head -- yes, I know, the tomato is actually a fruit.
Back to Veggie Dad. In may be more accurate to call him the Potato Whisperer. In search of the potato's roots -- the genetic kind and the physical -- my brother ventured to South America. Accompanied by gangly, bespectacled, and geeky college students, armed with video cameras and more brains than money, he traipsed all over the continent, starting in the high Andes mountains, seeking the elusive wild varieties. They camped near Machu Picchu, surviving the frigid overnight temperatures, among the spiders and beetles, enduring any number of deprivations.
For the record, he did invite interested family members along. As much as I want to someday see Machu Picchu (definitely on my bucket list), there was no way I was sleeping outdoors on the cold lumpy ground, no matter how exciting the long days of digging up wild purple potato roots might be. Call me wimpy, but room service is my idea of camping.
The South American trip produced enough material for a documentary. Haven't seen it yet, but I'm told it's riveting. Not to hurt my brother's feelings, but somehow I don't think Martin Scorsese has anything to worry about.
My brother's quest did make me wonder about the potato. Who knew such a lowly and commonplace vegetable could claim such a storied past? It's the Wonder Spud. The Spaniards brought it back to Spain in 1570, where it was mocked and viewed with great disdain. Many snickered and called potatoes "earth's testicles." It slowly made its way to England, then the rest of Europe, but not without a few mishaps.
The first French chefs tasked with preparing potatoes for the French court cooked the stems and leaves and tossed the tubers. Oops. The stems and leaves are poisonous, as are the ones that are cooked and eaten while still green, which is where the fatal green potato chip legend originated. Anyway, the stems and leaves made all the courtiers quite ill, and the potato was unceremoniously jettisoned from the kitchens.
In 1598, a Swiss botanist claimed that the consumption of potatoes caused leprosy and induced a fierce amount of wind (gas, not hurricanes). If that weren't bad enough, he also declared that potatoes incited Venus. That must have struck panic in the hearts of the French. If any people on earth didn't need sexual incitement, it was the French. Lord knows their history is choked with scandalous goings-on. A vegetable that made people hornier than usual had to be seen as the path to destruction, the downfall of their society.
Doom and gloom predictions about incorporating a tuberous Viagra into the diet spread like wildfire. Now that I think about it, maybe there is something to that claim. It is credited with enabling nothing less than the Industrial Revolution. Why, you ask? As a supremely reliable food source, it doubled Europe's population.
Hmmm . . . My parents had six children. My dad insisted on potatoes at every meal. Wow. Could it be, after all this time, the potato actually is an aphrodisiac?
In taking the potato for granted, we forget how many aspects of our lives pay tribute to it. I think I'll start a petition calling for the potato to be our national vegetable. Ireland calls it their national vegetable. But, since we did Ireland a huge favor by taking in millions of Irish citizens because of the potato blight during the 1800s, the country shouldn't argue too much if we steal it. It's kind of weird for them to choose it anyway, isn't it? You'd think they'd never want to see another one after what they went through.
The potato famine caused Ireland to lose half its population in four years, either by emigration or starvation. If the Irish had any sense, they would be courting those lonely stepsisters, jicama and quinoa.
Lots of people are couch potatoes. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head owe their existence to the potato. Potato-white starch perks up wilted restaurant lettuce -- an arcane fact that they really don't want you to know. There's a potato museum in Brussels, Belgium. Once a year, a sweet teenage girl gets crowned the Potato Queen in a small town in the U.S. and gets to ride high atop a hay wagon in the local parade, doing the queen's wave, while the other girls secretly pray for a sudden downpour.
Potatoes might be involved in ninety percent of all middle-school science projects. They can be turned into clocks. They're used in the faux-painting trade. And there's a company now claiming that a chemical in the potato skin makes you feel fuller than you are. Can you say amazing new diet pill?
Ah, the majestic potato. Bet this Thanksgiving, you'll eat yours with a little more respect.
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