In his 1957 essay collection Mythologies, the French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes called chips (la frite), a food that comes from a crop native to the Americas, patriotic and the alimentary sign of Frenchness.
Despite its origins in the Andes, its an incredibly successful global food
Just a century earlier, a potato disease prompted a famine that halved Irelands population in a few years, producing a decades-long cascading effect of social and economic turmoil. And as you read these lines, the worlds leading potato producers today are China, India, Russia and Ukraine, respectively.
Despite these nations intimate and complicated relationships with potatoes, and how intertwined their societies and economies are with them, none can truly call them native. The humble potato was domesticated in the South American Andes some 8,000 years ago and was only brought to Europe in the mid-1500s, from where it spread west and northwards, back to the Americas, and beyond.
Despite its origins in the Andes, its an incredibly successful global food, said food historian Rebecca Earle, whos tracing the potatos planetary journey in a forthcoming book called Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. Its grown practically everywhere in the world, and practically everywhere, people consider it one of our foods.
For the rest of the world beyond the Andes, the potato might not be autochthonous, but it feels local. Earle calls it the world's most successful immigrant, as its origin has become unrecognisable for producers and consumers everywhere. Idaho farmers in the US and gnocchi-loving Italians will claim the potato as much as any Peruvian, because its story is not only that of a country or of a region, but an account of how humans have reconfigured their relationship with land and food within a few generations.
You may also be interested in:Asias anti-ageing red diamond The birthplace of the modern apple A foraged green that can kill
The potato is the worlds fourth-most important crop after rice, wheat and maize, and the first among non-grains. How could an Andean tuber persuade the world, in just a few centuries, to adopt it so completely? What made the potato so irresistible was its unrivalled nutritional value, its relative easiness to cultivate as compared to some major cereals, its ability to easily navigate wars and tax censuses due to its knack for hiding underground from collectors, and in particular, its camaraderie with working men and women in the fields.
A good place to understand its origins is the International Potato Center (IPC), a research-for-development centre that researches and promotes all things potato-related. Its set in an arid suburb in the Peruvian capital, Lima, and harbours a collection of thousands of potato samples from across the continent. The Andes is where the biggest genetic diversity lies, but you can find potatoes from Chile to the United States, Ren Gmez, senior curator at the IPC genebank, told me there.
He explained that potatoes were domesticated high in the Andes, near Lake Titicaca, nearly 1,000km south-east of Lima. Following domestication, these early potatoes spread through the cordillera and became a crucial food supply for indigenous communities, including the Inca, particularly as a staple foodstuff called chuo, a freeze-dried potato product that can last years or even decades.
Out of the Americas
In 1532, the Spanish invasion brought an end to the Inca but not to the cultivation of potatoes. The invaders took tubers (the underground parts of the plant we call potatoes) across the Atlantic, as they did with other crops such as tomatoes, avocados and corn, in what historians call the Great Columbian Exchange. For the first time in history, the potato ventured beyond the Americas.
These early Andean varieties had a tough time adjusting to Spain and other parts of mainland Europe. Day length is very constant across the year in the equatorial region where potatoes first were domesticated, so the potato plant was used to regular days with 12 hours of sunlight, said evolutionary geneticist Hernan A Burbano Roa.
European long summer days confused the potato plant, and tubers didnt grow during the favourable warmer months; instead, they did so in the autumn, too close to the frosty early winter days to survive. The first decades of planting in the Old Continent proved unsuccessful.
But then potatoes found better conditions in Ireland, where a cool but frost-free fall gave the crop enough time to mature after its introduction from Spain in the 1580s. A century of farmer selection produced a variety that set tubers earlier in the summer, and the potato took the mantle it would carry for centuries: the staple crop of peasants.
The humble tuber
Villagers prized potatoes because they provided an unmatched nutritional yield per hectare. In Ireland in particular, tenants rented the land they tilled, so as lords increased their fees, they were forced to produce as much food as possible in the smallest possible area. No crop produced more food per acre, demanded less cultivation and stored as easily as the potato, wrote sociologist James Lang in his book Notes of a Potato Watcher.
Potatoes contain nearly every important vitamin and nutrient, except vitamins A and D, making their life-supporting properties unrivalled by any other single crop. Keep their skin and add some dairy, which provides the two missing vitamins, and you have a healthy human diet staple. You even have 2g of protein for every 100g of potato; eat 5.5 kilos per adult per day, if ones to believe some estimates of consumption in mid-1600s Ireland, and you have a good supply.
For landless tenants in 17th- and 18th-Century Ireland, a single acre of land cultivated with potatoes and one milk cow was nutritionally sufficient for feeding a large family of six to eight. No cereal could claim that feat. Thus, began the centuries-long captivation among Irish and British peasants with the potato, grounded in rented earth and scarcity.
From the British Isles, potatoes spread eastwards across peasant fields in Northern Europe, writes Lang: they were found in the Low Countries by 1650, in Germany, Prussia and Poland by 1740 and in Russia by 1840s. After farmer-selection filtered out those varieties and genes less adapted to local climate conditions, it flourished.
Villagers in the war-ravaged European plains, by conflicts such as the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, quickly discovered another advantage of planting potatoes: they were really hard to tax and plunder. If you have a field of wheat, its really visible. You cant hide it, said Earle, who claims tax collectors can visually measure their size and return in time for the harvest. But underground potatoes are well hidden, and you can dig them up one by one, as needed. Such piecemeal harvesting hid the crop from tax collectors and protected the peasants food supply in the war time, said Lang in his book. Marauding soldiers laid waste to field crops and raided grain stores. They rarely stopped to dig up an acre of spuds.
The elites and military strategists of the time noticed this. Prussias King Frederick the Great ordered his government to distribute instructions on how to plant potatoes, hoping peasants would have food if enemy armies invaded during the War of the Austrian Succession in 1740. Other nations followed suit and by the time of the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s, the potato had become Europes food reserve, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO).
In fact, tubers were such a valued crop during wartime that every military campaign on European soil after about 1560 resulted in an increase in potato acreage, down to and including World War Two, wrote historian William McNeill in his 1999 essay How the Potato Changed the World's History.
Nutrition and power
In a matter of centuries, potatoes entered the European and global economies as a staple crop. For decades, food historians (such as those noted in this FAO booklet from 2008) have explained this spread as the result of well-meaning Enlightened sages obsessed with the nutritional properties of the tubers that managed to persuade a reluctant and conservative populace to adopt the potato.
But Earle has her doubts. It was peasants who adapted the potato to Europe, she argues, thus they needed no persuading. Elites did not discover a new crop, but rather, they had a novel idea of what healthy food was. Instead of placing a superfood in the middle of European diet, they realised that nutrition needed to take a more central role and looked around for those crops that might serve their purpose. The humble tuber was already there.
Enlightened discussions of population, and what its health meant for the power of the state, changed political calculations during the 18th Century, and also the fortunes of the potato. If a strong, numerous population was crucial for economic production and military might, the state needed to understand and manage the nutritional components of what people were eating. Abundant, healthy food became central to Empire-building, Earle writes in her 2018 paper Promoting Potatoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Thus, she argues, the fascination with potatoes does not come from the emergence of a new crop, but from novel European ideas of the relationship between food and the state.
In this regard, the potato was unrivalled. The food produced by a field of potatoes is much superior to what is produced by a field of wheat, wrote Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution. But while Smith was right in highlighting the potatos virtues, it was peasants and not the elites that made potatoes a fixture of European gardens and farms.
A question of measuring arises, Earle admits. How did scholars like Smith and his contemporaries compare nutritional value? In the 18th Century, scientists hadnt agreed on a language for vitamins, proteins and minerals, she said. Instead, what they did is say: look at the people who eat potatoes. They are more robust, and they are stouter and more energetic than people who eat other things, said the scholar, who heads the Department of History at the University of Warwick.
But as she argues, potatoes served this state-building purpose not only because of their nutritional value, but because they were already planted in gardens and fields across the continent. Its fans praised its virtues.
Potatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world
They were not wrong. A widely cited economics paper reviewed information from military records of French soldiers born after 1700 and showed that eating potatoes made people slightly taller. According to The Quarterly Journal of Economics: for villages that were fully suitable for potato cultivation, its introduction increased average adult heights by approximately one-half inch.
That same paper provides a stronger claim: that population in Europe and Asia exploded after the spread of the potato. According to the researchers, the tuber introduction accounts for close to one-quarter of the growth in Old World population and urbanisation between 1700 and 1900.
Potatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950, wrote McNeill.
Back to the Andes
The potato frenzy continued unstoppably until a blight paved the way for the Great Famine of 1845-1849 in Ireland. The failure of the crop, compounded by the utterly inadequate response by the British Government in London (which decided against relief and bet on market forces), led to the death of a million people, the emigration of one million people to the US and the steady departure of two more million elsewhere. Irelands population was halved in a matter of decades.
The Famine called attention to the fact that potato had supplied 80% of calorie intake in the country with only a handful of crop varieties available. Such a homogenous food block made the potato susceptible to diseases, as its genetic diversity had been washed away from domestication.
To be fair, some mixing of varieties had already taken place in Europe around the 1750s. Burbano was part of a team that peered into the genes of European potatoes to study their ancestry and concluded that ancient Andean varieties mixed with tubers later brought from the lowlands of south-central Chile, such as Chilo island, were naturally domesticated for the long days of the Southern Hemisphere.
This first admixture only provides some handy traits, but not enough genetic depth, so breeding programmes over the years have been looking at ways to improve food security for potato farmers. One of the ways breeders used to incorporate resistance was looking at wild potatoes, Burbano explained, talking about inedible potato cousins that still survive in the Andes and in the rest of their natural range. There are 151 known species, and they are the ancestors of todays potatoes, which have lost genetic diversity after centuries of serving humans.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, scientists began combining genes from mainstream potatoes, hoping to keep their domesticated traits, with wild potatoes, hoping to get their resistance to diseases. Most tubers grown today are a result of such tests.
These wild species might also provide an answer to another pressing issue: changing temperature and rain conditions due to the climate crisis. A recent study concluded that rising emissions could cause a reduction of up to 26% of global tuber yield reductions by 2085. Genetic resources from these species could provide desirable traits, such as tolerance to frost, drought or temperature increase.
Breeders in Europe and the United States, and more recently in Asia, have been developing these more resistant varieties for years, paving the way for potatoes to become a truly global crop in the 20th Century. Of the worlds top 20 tuber producers, only three (the United States, Peru and Brazil) are part of its historical range, but every country is creating its own connection to it.
In China, the government is aggressively promoting the potato among its population, hoping it can become a new national staple crop and staple food. Its leaders are following similar tactics to those of 18th-Century Europe, peddling it with state-owned media, popular figures and popular science books. And in India, potatoes are prepared in hundreds of different ways and you would struggle to convince farmers that they arent local.
Half the world around, the potato has reignited long-standing rivalries between Peru and Chile over who can claim the tuber as their own, while top chefs in Lima and the Andes such as Virgilio Martinez who opened Mil in 2019 are turning their gaze again to potatoes and featuring them in their creations.
While Peruvians insist that potatoes were domesticated in whats now their territory (and bits of neighbouring Bolivia), a Chilean minister countered in 2008 that a vast majority of the worlds tubers come from a variety introduced from Chile. But the debate is not necessarily about a history lesson, but also about national pride. The silly part is that the story of the potato began millennia before the concept of nation-states existed, said Charles Crissman, a researcher at the International Potato Center, in a New York Times story published in 2008. But, yes, the first potatoes came from what is today Peru.
The claims rankled Peruvians because it came during the International Year of the Potato in 2008, a celebration that even FAO conceded came from the Government of Peru. The country established the International Potato Center in 1971 and worked with indigenous communities in the mountain peaks to protect the potatos genetic heritage.
A small agri-park high in the Peruvian Andes, the Potato Park in Cusco harbours a living museum of the humble tuber, in their natural environment, a reminder of where the potato comes from, but also a roadmap of where it could go: genetic material from less domesticated potatoes can trace a path forward for the crop, as it deals with new threats such as changing climates and pressures on the agricultural sector.
A two-hour drive east of Cusco, a different view of the present and the future awaits: its Mil, an ambitious take on Peruvian culinary tradition perched 12,000ft up in the clouds of the Andean mountains. Thanks to its celebrated chefs, here you can try a handful of Perus almost 5,000 species of potatoes, and still have some space to wonder about whats beyond these mountains: is it an Indian curry? Fish and chips in an east London pub? A baked potato fresh from an Idaho oven?
With the global versatility of potatoes, the possibilities are endless.
Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a places heritage.
Join more than three million BBC Travel fans by liking us onFacebook, or follow us onTwitterandInstagram.
If you liked this story,sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newslettercalled "The Essential List". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.
Read the rest here:
- SAIS students from around the world travel to Italy for in-person instruction - The Hub at Johns Hopkins - October 29th, 2020
- New World, New Duties: Creating Tomorrows Travel, Today - Worth - October 29th, 2020
- These destinations were overwhelmed by tourists. Here's how they're doing now - CNN - October 29th, 2020
- Villas of Distinction Recognized with Cond Nast Traveler's 2020 Readers' Choice Award in Villas Category - Benzinga - October 29th, 2020
- Trending Now: Sports Tourism Market Share, Growth, Demand, Trends, Region Wise Analysis of Top Players and Forecasts - Aerospace Journal - October 29th, 2020
- Where Wes Anderson films 'accidentally' come to life - The Guardian - October 29th, 2020
- Beachfront Residences at The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort Open November 1 - Luxury Travel Advisor - October 29th, 2020
- Tourism and Agriculture Market 2020 Trends, Market Share, Industry Size, Growth, Sales, Opportunities, Analysis and Forecast To 2025 - TechnoWeekly - October 29th, 2020
- Impact of Covid-19 on the Hospitality, Travel, and Leisure Sector - Programming Insider - October 29th, 2020
- Africas year of zero: a special report on the future of wildlife tourism - Financial Times - October 29th, 2020
- Coronavirus: Is self-catering the best option? - World First Travel Insurance - October 29th, 2020
- From Lusaka to the world: why travel holds the key to economic recovery - themastonline.com - October 29th, 2020
- TCS World Travel Announces Dates for Its First All-Inclusive Luxury Expeditions On Ground-Breaking New Airbus A321neo Private Jet - Business Wire - October 14th, 2020
- Hacienda Tres Ros is a Strong Candidate in Three 2020 World Travel Awards Categories - PR Web - October 14th, 2020
- Peru, Bahamas and Puerto Rico Added to WTTC's Safe Travels List - TravelPulse - October 14th, 2020
- Maldives bags 8 nominations at World Travel Awards - The Edition - October 14th, 2020
- Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) And World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo (WTCE) Announce They Will Bring the Industry Together in Hamburg... - October 14th, 2020
- WTTC has a plan to save the travel sector - Travel Weekly - October 14th, 2020
- Short's Travel Signs with Deem to Offer An Additional Travel Booking Solution for Clients - GlobeNewswire - October 14th, 2020
- Travel insurance proposition enhanced by Zurich - ITIJ - October 14th, 2020
- The world's busiest airports -- and how far they've fallen - CNN - October 14th, 2020
- This is why travel will be better post-pandemic - Traveller - October 14th, 2020
- Is cow hugging the world's new wellness trend? - BBC News - October 14th, 2020
- Disney World attendance to stay capped; Disneyland reopening 'not much of a negotiation,' CEO says - USA TODAY - October 14th, 2020
- Author and World Traveler Illustrates Exploration of Europe and the Challenges he Faced in New Book - GlobeNewswire - October 14th, 2020
- Travel Alert: Covid-19 Cases Are Back To July Levels, And Rising Fast - Forbes - October 14th, 2020
- The traveler who spent a month working as a porter on Mount Everest - CNN - October 14th, 2020
- Expedia Modernized Operations on One of the World's Fastest-Moving IT Stacks - GlobeNewswire - October 14th, 2020
- Impact Of Covid-19 on Experiential Travels Market 2020 Industry Challenges, Business Overview and Forecast Research Study 2026 - PRnews Leader - October 14th, 2020
- How One Travel Advisor Gets Creative to Stay Engaged with Clients - Travel Market Report - October 14th, 2020
- New York City named one of world's top ten best walking cities - Travel Daily - October 14th, 2020
- Lonely Planet's new Ultimate Travel List reveals the world's unmissable travel experiences - Lonely Planet Travel News - October 8th, 2020
- President Trump positive is a red alert for World Travel and Tourism - eTurboNews | Trends | Travel News - October 8th, 2020
- 4 Travelers on Life Around the World: Women Who Travel Podcast - Cond Nast Traveler - October 8th, 2020
- The world's 10 coolest neighborhoods, according to Time Out - CNN - October 8th, 2020
- After six months, Germany eases world travel restrictions - The Tribune India - October 8th, 2020
- Travel agents wait for the world to reopen from COVID shutdowns; heres how theyre staying afloat with trave - MassLive.com - October 8th, 2020
- The world of travel is (slowly) reopening | Opinion - ECM Publishers - October 8th, 2020
- Amazon Prime's Global Child "Travel with Purpose" & Netflix's Down to Earth with Zac Efron bring hope to audiences through a new breed... - October 8th, 2020
- This hotel was named the best in Boston and among the top in the world - Boston.com - October 8th, 2020
- Is One of the Most Overtouristed Cities in the World Better Off Without Them? - Fodor's Travel - October 8th, 2020
- New Zealand passport is now the most powerful in the world; India secures 58th position - Happytrips - October 8th, 2020
- Big plans from Small Luxury Hotels of the World - Travel Weekly - October 3rd, 2020
- Trending News: Customized travel Market Overview and Forecast Report 2020-2026 Top players: TCS World Travel, DuVine Cycling & Adventure Co,... - October 3rd, 2020
- Australia-New Zealand travel bubble to partially open within two weeks - The Guardian - October 3rd, 2020
- Ski, Party, Seed a Pandemic: The Travel Rules That Let Covid-19 Take Flight - The New York Times - October 3rd, 2020
- Which Countries Did Worse In The Deadly Summer Of Tourism? - Forbes - October 3rd, 2020
- New WTTC Campaign Highlights Social Benefits of Travel & Tourism - Hotel Business - October 3rd, 2020
- Worlds Best Islands: Why Portugals Terceira Belongs On Your Travel Wish List - Forbes - October 3rd, 2020
- When Star Wars Rebels brought back Mortis and introduced time travel [Jabba the Pod 3.13] - SYFY WIRE - October 3rd, 2020
- Dream Vacations Lift and Shifts National Conference Aboard Celebrity Apex to 2021; This Years Conference will be Virtual - Franchising.com - October 3rd, 2020
- Tratok and Hotel Data Cloud Sign Agreement to Restart Travel Industry Through Blockchain Powered Technology and Artificial Intelligence Enabled... - October 3rd, 2020
- How You Can Help Animal Shelters Around the World During COVID - Fodor's Travel - October 3rd, 2020
- Panama is reopening to tourists from all countries in October - Lonely Planet Travel News - October 3rd, 2020
- Travel-Awards.Org to Host the Virtual Conference World Travel Summit 2020, Under the Theme "Travel - In The New Normal" - PRNewswire - September 4th, 2020
- Phillys Four Seasons Spa Was Just Named One of the Best in the World - Philadelphia magazine - September 4th, 2020
- Attend a Live, Interactive Virtual Oktoberfest Celebration This Year - TravelPulse - September 4th, 2020
- So you had a terrible vacation. Whose fault is that: The airline's? The hotel's? Or yours? - USA TODAY - September 4th, 2020
- It's a new world of travel in MLS for the Galaxy and LAFC - Los Angeles Times - September 4th, 2020
- Staycationers are saving hotels and Airbnb from covid-19 - The Economist - September 4th, 2020
- Cerabino: In world of COVID-19 precautions, it's Florida, not Canada, that should be advocating solo sex - Palm Beach Post - September 4th, 2020
- LCCs the right model for post-Covid world; recovery is not near, but out of creative destruction may emerge new entities - Web In Travel - September 4th, 2020
- Thailand managed 101 days without local coronavirus cases. Will it open borders soon? - CNN - September 4th, 2020
- Travel The World From Your Living Room With The New Technogym Bike - Forbes - September 4th, 2020
- Africa Travel Week focuses on creating opportunities for the industry this Tourism Month - Travel Daily News International - September 4th, 2020
- Villas of Distinction offers white-label partnerships to Travel Agencies - Travel Daily News International - September 4th, 2020
- Cruise Ships Are the Cleanest Travel Environments - TravelPulse - September 4th, 2020
- World Travel Awards 2020: The Best New Luxury Hotels And Resorts In Europe - Forbes - September 2nd, 2020
- Move Over, Sustainable Travel. Regenerative Travel Has Arrived. - The New York Times - September 2nd, 2020
- Travel COVID Safe Accreditation Group Launches The Most Rigorous Three-Point Inspection Health Certification For The Travel And Tourism Industry - PR... - September 2nd, 2020
- Louis Vuitton Parfums Explores Out of This World Travel With New "Mtore" Fragrance - HYPEBEAST - September 2nd, 2020
- Letters to the editor Sept. 2, 2020 | Letters To Editor - goskagit.com - September 2nd, 2020
- 6 numbers to know about the greatest short courses in the world - Golf.com - September 2nd, 2020
- Mike Fox introduces a travel book narrating his wife's treatment for Parkinson's disease in Italy - GlobeNewswire - September 2nd, 2020
- Column: Reflections of columns and world travel - Current in Carmel - August 24th, 2020
- Aretha Franklin memorialized with section of Lodge Freeway - The Detroit News - August 24th, 2020
- Roaming Through Lanzarotes Otherworldly Vineyards - The New York Times - August 24th, 2020
- Shares in Accor and IHG rise on merger speculation a combination would create the worlds biggest hotel group - MarketWatch - August 24th, 2020
- Japan to open world's second 'Making of Harry Potter' attraction - CNN - August 24th, 2020
- The Japanese village that cooks in a hot spring - BBC News - August 24th, 2020