Revolution of another chip

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 October, 1999, 12:00am

Don't buy this hoping to find 101 exciting new recipes for potatoes.

'From the Andes in the 16th century to fish and chips, the story of how a vegetable changed history', the cover blurb reads. It should say 'changed Western history', to be more precise. Apart from one short chapter on the potato's beginnings in the mountains of the Andes, it is more concerned with its history as it was transplanted to England, Ireland, France and the United States.

It is difficult to believe that potatoes - which many still consider the natural accompaniment for meat as in 'meat and . . .' - were greeted with such suspicion when first introduced. The Andeans liked the taste and versatility of the spud, and took advantage of its ability to thrive in a harsh climate.

One might expect it to have been just as well appreciated when introduced to France and England in the late 16th century.

Until then and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, wheat and other grain crops failed regularly, and starvation was a constant threat. The potato would have been a hardy back-up crop, but was looked upon with great distrust: by some it was thought to be poisonous, by others a food created by the devil. The rich thought it was fit only for the poor, and the poor greeted it with suspicion because their animals rejected it as feed.

Social snobbery played a prominent part in the slow acceptance of the potato. In England, 'The Better Sort of People', as one chapter is called, refused to touch it, but briefly considered legislation to force it upon the poor.

Even in France, which has brought to the world wonderful dishes such as potatoes Parmentier and gratin dauphinois, initially considered it 'vile and gross', preferring grains.

By the early 19th century in France potatoes were eaten across the social spectrum, but in England remained food for people who could afford no better. It was considered by some to be the root of 'slovenliness, filth, misery and slavery', at a time when the tuber's popularity matched that of social reforms sweeping the land.

The potato had better luck in Ireland and the colonial United States. Indeed, the Irish relied upon it so much the potato blight, which affected to a lesser extent England and Europe, caused its Great Famine, from 1845-1849.

In the 13 states that made up the fledgling US, potatoes were eaten by employers and labourers. Because the American colonialists had an abundance of fertile land (after they'd kicked out the native American Indians) and they already enjoyed a varied and abundant diet, they could afford to be more experimental with new crops.

Although this book is an interesting read, it probably won't appeal to anyone except food historians. This is a pity, because with the ever-increasing world population, there is a lesson to be learned about food prejudices and how they might determine the survival of people.

The potato by Larry Zuckerman North Point Press $130