The lowly tuber. The humble spud. The Irish apricot. The greater tater. No matter what you call it, the potato has cemented its status as a cultural staple around the world. Nowadays, it’s thought of as a boring food — just a side dish that fills up the plate. The potato has played a major role in history, however, and it’s actually the fifth most popular crop in the world. We collected five stories that tell the fascinating history of the potato, along with five recipes to get you excited about this important ingredient.
Origins: Cultivation By The Incas
The potato is perhaps most associated with the Irish, for reasons we’ll get to below, but it wasn’t until the mid-1500s that the potato even made it to Europe. The story of the potato starts long before that. The Inca in the area of Peru and Bolivia were the first to cultivate the crop some 10,000 years ago, with the more conservative estimate being that they started growing potatoes somewhere between 800 and 500 BCE. Because of their nutritional value, potatoes, or papas, were worshipped by the Incas with this prayer:
O Creator! Thou who givest life to all things and hast made men that they may live, and multiply. Multiply also the fruits of the earth, the potatoes and other food that thou hast made, that men may not suffer from hunger and misery.
Despite this, apparently pregnant women were told not to eat potatoes because it made their babies’ heads too big.
Because there were no refrigerators at the time, one of the most popular methods of preserving potatoes was making chuño. This was done by leaving the potatoes out during the winter so that they would freeze and thaw. Eventually, farmers would squeeze out the water to make stiff potatoes, which apparently are like gnocchi.
While this is a very old process and may not sound appetizing, chuño is still around today. One of its most popular uses is in Chairo Paceño, a Bolivian stew that combines ancient ingredients including potatoes with ones that the Spanish brought over, including beef and lamb. It is a very traditional dish that is enjoyed as part of a large lunch.
While not particularly attractive, chuño is great because of how long it can last without losing nutritional value, and it’s still used in a number of South American dishes.
Discovery: The Story Of The Potato King
In the 1530s, shortly after the Spanish started colonizing South America, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada y Rivera brought the potato back to Europe in place of the gold he was hoping to find. This was perhaps one of the biggest developments in European history.
The nutritional value of the potato was discovered by the Spanish first on their boats, when they found out that sailors who ate the potatoes didn’t suffer from scurvy. A few centuries later, the potato was a major staple all over Europe, and some researchers suggest it helped end famines in Northern Europe. Historian William H. McNeil has argued that the potato helped fuel imperialism, writing, “By feeding rapidly growing populations, [it] permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”
Despite being such a healthy food, the potato did not receive a very warm reception. The most famous example of this involves Frederick the Great, also known as the Potato King (Der Kartoffelkönig). As king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, Frederick wanted to encourage his subjects to eat potatoes because of how healthy they were. The subjects, however, refused, because eating food from the ground seemed gross. Apparently being aware of reverse psychology, Frederick decided to order his guards to protect his potato field in order to pique the interest of the locals. He also ordered the guards to be kind of lax, allowing people to go in and steal the potatoes to see what all the fuss was about. Soon, the potato became a success all around Prussia, and to this day, people put potatoes on the grave of Frederick the Great.
To try a potato dish from the area of Prussia, you’ll want to make Königsberger Klopse, or Prussian meatballs, which is traditionally served with potatoes. A good option comes from neighboring Germany: potato dumplings.
This painting by Robert Müller shows Frederick the Great admiring the potato crop, thinking of ways to trick the proletariat into eating his favorite starch.
Ireland: Walter Raleigh, A Genocide, A Famine
The history of Ireland is inextricably linked to the potato. There is a rumor that the potato came to Ireland when a Spanish Armada crashed on the Irish shores, spilling potatoes onto the land. The more likely story, though, is that they were brought by the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. Irish soil is harsh and not very well-suited for growing most things, but the potato was perfect, and so consumption of them spread quickly across the island.
The potato was most vitally important during Oliver Cromwell’s Irish genocide, which started in 1649. The Irish fled west, where the less arable land was only able to grow potatoes. Not only that, but Cromwell’s troops would burn the land, so the only crops that were able to survive were underground, so: potatoes once again. There’s no consensus as to how many people died because of Cromwell and the ensuing famine, as well as the bubonic plague that came to Ireland around that time, but estimates place the death toll at as much as 83 percent of the population.
Two centuries later, death came for Ireland once again in the form of the Great Famine. A fungus killed potatoes all across the country, causing a million deaths and two million emigrations from the country, reducing the population by at least 20 percent.
While it may sound like potato history in Ireland is pretty negative, the potato is an important part of Irish culture. There are lots of recipes to choose from, but one good one is Irish potato bread, a big part of breakfast in northern Ireland. It’s telling of the Irish willingness to turn potatoes into literally anything.
This drawing from the Weekly Freeman illustrates the pain and loss felt in Ireland in 1881 after the famine. Even for a political cartoon, it’s not particularly comical.
Return: The Potato In The United States
The potato has a hallowed place in the culinary United States. Funnily enough, though the potato was found in South America, it wasn’t until 1719 that it finally made its way to North America.
While it was a latecomer, the United States has made some important contributions to the world of potatoes. There is the famous story from 1853 involving George Crum of Saratoga Springs, New York, who was so offended after being told his fries were too thick, he went and sliced them thin as a form of revenge. Everyone liked these new “thin fries” though, so he accidentally invented the potato chip. Unfortunately, this story seems to be a myth, and the real origin of the chip is shrouded in mystery.
Another invention, which has nothing to do with eating at all, is Mr. Potato Head. While we currently think of Mr. Potato Head as the plastic potato voiced by Don Rickles in Toy Story, the original toy was made with an actual potato. The set came with plastic pieces, and children were able to make a face using a potato, or really any other food. Parents, worried about food waste, started complaining, however, and it was eventually turned into the plastic toy we know today.
The epitome of potatoes in the United States, though, is the potato salad, which evolved from the German Kartoffelsalat. Served at picnics and potlucks across the nation, it is a quintessentially American food.
The original Mr. Potato Head in all his creepy, non-plastic glory.
Modernity: The Potato Today
If you asked most people in the United States where potatoes come from, they would probably say Idaho. While Idaho certainly produces a lot of this crop, potato production has largely moved to the eastern hemisphere. As of 2014, India and China are the two largest growers of potatoes, with almost 142 million tons of potatoes between them each year. That’s a lot of potatoes!
The best recipe to capture this incredibly globalized crop is chicken vindaloo. While it’s associated with India, it is actually British Asian, meaning it was likely popularized in the curry houses of England. This means it is not “authentic,” but it does capture the fact that potatoes are a worldwide food, used in so many different kinds of recipes. It may seem like just a boring spud, but it’s worth appreciating the potato for creating the world we live in today.