The potato, its vices and its virtues
When potatoes were first introduced to Europe in the 16th century, they were greeted with disapproval. Since potatoes belong to the same family as the ‘tenebrous’ mandrake, people unfortunately considered them as vulgar, mundane tubers with a dubious reputation. Hence, except in times of food scarcity, they were used to feed pigs. Potatoes gradually became part of the human diet in the 18th century, but people still associated them with poverty. Their status only began to improve in the 1950s.
From antipathy to fame
Spanish and British seafarers of the 16th century brought potatoes back from South America, where they were a basic foodstuff. As with all new food, potatoes initially roused curiosity, but soon became an object of suspicion and even aversion. Botanists studied them and declared them edible, but of no great interest, and classed them in the Solanaceae family. They thus associated potatoes with already familiar plants that were considered dangerous, such as deadly nightshade and mandrake, the so-called ‘witches’ plants’.
Potatoes did not gain favour in the Renaissance food classification system either. Plants were defined according to a vertical and hierarchical principle, with earth being the basest, most worrying element, and the furthest removed from the Divine. Since bulbs and tubers develop underground, scholars placed them at the bottom of the food scale and relegated them to the sturdy stomachs of peasants. Aristocrats, however, supposedly had to eat aerial and solar products, such as fruit or peas, in order to stay healthy.
The taste of potatoes and the ways they were prepared also worked against them. At the time, potatoes were still acrid, bitter and small. In addition, since farmers often harvested potatoes green and stored them in broad daylight, they could contain high levels of solanine and thus cause digestive disorders. They had a reputation as unwholesome food in many regions. The Swiss naturalist Caspar Bauhin (1560-1624), and others after him, accused potatoes of giving people leprosy. In the French region of Franche-Comté, growing potatoes was banned for this very reason.
The only good qualities attributed to potatoes also worked against them. Since they give an excellent yield, they could be grown in secret on fallow land and, moreover, they were not tithed. These tubers therefore proved ideal as food for pigs but, at the same time, became totally unattractive for human consumption, especially as they could not be used to make bread. It was only in times of food scarcity that potatoes replaced bread.
From the 18th century onward, potatoes were very gradually accepted as substitute food in times of crop-growing crises and as a response to the increased food requirements brought about by demographic growth. Agronomists managed to obtain less toxic and less acrid varieties, containing less solanine. Doctors and the elite acknowledged them as harmless and encouraged farmers to grow potatoes in order to improve poor people’s diets.
Once included in the popular diet, potatoes continued to expand through the 19th century with the new working class that emerged from the Industrial Revolution. Potato consumption levels were high until after the Second World War, partly due to rationing. Potatoes regained prestige from the 1950s onward and steadily achieved success as palatable food in all its varied forms. As chips, crisps or flakes for making mash, the tuber found a place in urban diets and in fast food. With the reappraisal of regional cuisine from the 1980s onward, revamped potato gratins and other recipes redeemed potatoes among top chefs and the general public.
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