New Book Digs Into the Political History of Potatoes


You may prepare dinner a potato virtually any means and likelihood is you gained’t be dissatisfied with the outcome. 

But past this crop’s versatile appeal and dietary worth is an sudden historical past deeper than its personal roots. 

Rebecca Earle is aware of this finest. The meals historian and professor at the University of Warwick has spent a number of years tracing the historical past of the potato from its early origins in the Andes to the generally consumed starch that makes it onto kitchen tables round the world. 

In her newest e-book, Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato, Earle explains the crop’s evolution to turn out to be at the moment’s international staple, but in addition dives into how the vegetable turned central to authorities dietary coverage over the years. By tracing the historical past of the potato, Earle says we are able to perceive how trendy diets turned what they’re.  

“Our everyday diets are part of history and there’s a history of how we came to eat the way we do,” she says. 

Potatoes made their strategy to Europe from Peru after the Spanish invaded the Americas in the 1500’s and introduced the crop again to their dwelling continent. This was half of the catalyst for its gradual unfold into different corners of the world, Earle says. 

Potatoes have been quietly consumed by peasants for hundreds of years in South America, after which in Europe. But it wasn’t till the 18th century that European governments and Enlightenment-era thinkers began taking an curiosity in what strange folks have been cooking of their kitchens. States started recommending potatoes as ideally suited crops, Earle says, as they believed the youngsters who consumed the vegetable have been notably resilient.

“European states wanted these hearty robust populations of workers and sailors,” Earle says. “They started to become really interested in whether people were eating nourishing food and whether they could eat food that was a little cheaper, but was still nourishing.” 

And at the similar time that governments began involving themselves extra in peoples’ diets, Earle says the competing concept emerged that the state ought to depart these dietary selections as much as the particular person. Earle factors to this second in time as the origin of the debate in up to date society about how a lot the authorities ought to regulate and management the meals we eat.

Rebecca Earle. Photo by Christophe Delory

In the early 20th century, Earle says nutritionists began to desert their earlier deal with proteins as nourishment to undertake a extra holistic understanding of diet that included potatoes. And throughout wartimes, governments created entire ministries dedicated to determining learn how to preserve their populations fed. Potatoes turned a giant half of these efforts. 

In Nazi Germany, potatoes have been used as a method to additional assert nationalism. Propaganda declared Germans as the “people of the potato,” asserting that consuming the crop would make them extra German. They tried to breed potatoes that will thrive in German soil and went as far to find out a listing of authorised varieties. People have been prohibited to develop something that wasn’t on the listing. 

In the US, round the Second World War, the authorities launched tips stressing the advantages of incorporating ample quantities of potatoes into on a regular basis diets. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated at the time that this was an try to let Americans make knowledgeable selections, his authorities distributed this recommendation all through newspapers, radio, magazines and promotional pamphlets. 

Earle says that following the historical past of the potato helps us perceive the origins of the trendy world. The potato’s story reminds us that innovation doesn’t at all times come from these named in historical past books. In the potato’s case, unknown farmers tailored their strategies to affect the means we eat. It’s finally small farmers like these of the previous, who will play a giant function in fixing the world’s present meals safety issues, she says. 

“Ordinary people can make history,” Earle says. “We may not know their names, but we should be grateful to them. It’s those people we owe for the potatoes of today.”