Between 1500 AD and 1800 AD alone, France suffered through 40 nationwide famines and hundreds more of a regional or local nature. Across the entire face of Europe prior to the 15th century, more people perished from starvation than any plague or combination of natural disasters, and few countries even came close to having the ability to feed its own people. In his 2011 book “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created”, Charles C. Mann paints a grim picture of life in the most advanced countries of the world prior to the agricultural revolution unleashed by that inspired Italian’s voyage of discovery.
If we were to select one of the plethora of fruit and vegetable cultivars brought back by Spanish ships as the one which did the most to save the world from starvation, it would have to be the lowly potato – that ubiquitous tuber we take so often for granted; the splendidly-unbecoming “spud”. First grown by the ancient inhabitants of Peru in a high altitude environment which defied conventional agriculture, and then distributed across much of South and Central America through its literal clones in thousands of varieties, the humble potato produced large and predictable crops of nourishing and storable food staples which changed life dramatically, encouraging the development of stable communities where a nomadic lifestyle would otherwise have been the norm.
A member of the poisonous nightshade family and laced with the chemical solanine, the Aztecs learned to rub the otherwise dangerous wild potato with an edible clay whose composition counteracted the toxins just below the outer skin; a condition which was largely bred out of the potato over time. Called papas by the ancient Peruvian gardeners, the tuberous fruit was carried to Europe on Spanish ships, where it was erroneously called the “Virginia” potato. The “New World” transplant did well on European soils where its productivity is believed by historians, not only to have saved millions from starvation, but to have saved billions from a life of poverty.
Nowhere did the arrival of the potato have a greater impact than in Ireland, in whose harsh rainy climate and poor rocky soils the potato thrived. What’s more it did well even in the back yards and tiny gardens of commoners, where adult male workers are believed to have consumed up to ten pounds per day per person! As a consequence, the dependence upon and the importation of grains fell off even as the population grew.
All of this spawned a new agricultural industry whose hunger for fertilizer made guano, accumulated over the centuries from seabird nesting places, a valuable commodity: (13 million tons in 40 years.) It was probably a shipload of guano from Peru which carried a micro-organism known as Phytopthoria infestus to Europe in the summer of 1845, first appearing as a potato killer in Belgium, from whence it would quickly travel to Ireland where three fourths of that year’s crop would turn brown in death, with an even larger incidence of blight in the two following years. By the end of the three-year blight, Ireland would lose two million to a combination of starvation and immigration to North America. Even to this day, that country’s population remains lower than it was 150 years ago.
The potato was slow to find a welcome here in the U.S. where it was disdained as a “poor man’s food” for a full century. It was Rev. Henry Spaulding who was doing missionary work with Indian tribes in the Snake River Valley who introduced the “Irish potato” to Idaho where it was destined to define that state’s agriculture. And for Luther Burbank who sold his patent on the “Burbank Russet” for two hundred dollars, that sale would launch his career as America’s pre-eminent plant breeder and establish the “Idaho” type potato for ever after.
Nick-named for the shovel, or spade, with which it was once dug from the clinging soil, the splendiferous spud has traveled from the peaks of ancient Peru to dining tables across the globe as one more of Christiforo Columbus’ gifts to the world.
At one time, more than 5000 varieties of potatoes were grown in the Andes Mountains. It is still possible today to experience a great diversity of size, color and taste in “spuds” of the modern world.