Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Andean Mountains of South America is the birthplace of the white potato. By around 2000BC The Aymara Indians had developed over two hundred varieties on the Titicaca Plateau at elevations above 10,000 feet.
The influence of potatoes permeated the Incan culture in medieval Peru. For instance Incan units of time correlated to how long it takes for a potato to cook to various consistencies. Potatoes were even used to divine the truth and predict weather.
The Incas stored their potatoes and other food crops on the Andean mountain heights. The cold mountain temperature freezed the food and the water inside slowly vaporised under the low air pressure of the high altitudes. This was the first instance of freeze drying food.
The 16th century Spanish invaders in South America first came across the potato when entering a Colombian village from which the inhabitants had fled. They originally thought they were truffles.
The Spanish introduced the potato to Europe but most Europeans were originally suspicious of them, in part because people realized that the potato is a member of the nightshade family, all of which are very poisonous. Though they became a standard supply item on the Spanish ships as it was noticed that the sailors who ate potatoes did not suffer from scurvy, for the next 200 years it was generally damned as an evil food in Europe. The Scots refused to eat the potato because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible and in other European countries they were blamed for starting outbreaks of leprosy and syphilis.
By the late 17th century the Irish had recognised the food value of potatoes and became the first country in Europe to plant potatoes as a staple food crop rather than using it primarily as animal fodder. And in 1719 the first permanent potato patches in North America were established near Londonderry, New Hampshire.
In the Mid 18th century the Prussian ruler, Frederick the Great ordered his people to plant and eat potatoes, as a deterrent to famine. The people's fear of poisoning forced him to enforce his orders by threatening to cut off the nose and ears of those who refused. Unsurprisingly, this was effective and with a decade potatoes became a basic part of the Prussian diet.
Later in the 18th century a young French agriculturist and chemist, Antoine Augustin Parmentier, made it his mission to popularise the potato after his experience as prisoner of war in Prussia the spud was part of his diet. He wrote books and pamphlets to dispel the beliefs of many that potatoes cause leprosy and fevers and even persuaded the queen, Marie Antoinette to wear potato flowers to ornament her dress. Parmentier achieved his goals, and by the 1780s potato dishes were being created in great variety and the humble spud had become a delicacy enjoyed by the nobility. Meanwhile the French populace was coveting potatoes for themselves and by the end of the century most of Europe were eating them.
In the late 18th century Belgian street vendors were selling thin fried potatoes called "Belgian fries" from pushcarts and soon the French adapted the idea and their version became known as "French Fries". In 1789 Thomas Jefferson brought back with him to America the joys of fried potatoes after sampling them in Paris. He described them as "potatoes, fried in the French manner" with beefsteak. In the 1860s the popularity of chips in England increased as a result of the opening of fish and chip shops such as Joseph Malin’s in London.
In early 19th century Ireland, potatoes were the mainstay of the diet of poor peasants. However between 1845-48 there was a crop crisis caused by potato blight and the ensuing famine was extreme. The famine devastated the crop and depopulated the island. Some 750,000 people died and over one million emigrated, most of them to the United States. As a result the Irish adopted a more cautious attitude toward dependence on potatoes.
In 1852 a part Native Indian chef George Crum invented potato crisps by accident, thanks to a fussy customer. Industrialist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt came to the Moon Lake House Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Crum was a chef and ordered "thinner than normal French fried potatoes." Vanderbilt kept sending them back to Crum, protesting that they were too thick. Finally, out of spite the chef sliced the potatoes paper-thin, so that he wouldn’t be able to eat them with a fork then, fried them to a crisp in oil, and splashed salt on them. The fussy industrialist loved them. These "potato crunches" as Crum called them became a regular feature of the hotel’s menu.
During the 1898 Alaskan Klondike gold rush, potatoes were virtually as valuable as gold. Potatoes were so esteemed for their nutritious content that miners were trading gold for potatoes. In Britain during the Second World War there was a Ministry of Food campaign which used the slogan, " potatoes are good for you." This proved so successful that a new campaign had to be started saying "potatoes are fattening."
In 1995 the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. NASA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison created the technology with the goal of feeding astronauts on long space voyages, and eventually, feeding future space colonies.
Extracted from Food For Thought: Extraordinary Little Chronicles of the World by Ed Pearce

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