The History of Potatoes: From South America to the Rest of the World
The History of the Potato: From South America to the Rest of the World

As is often the case with kids and certain foods, I used to hate potatoes when I was a little girl. I thought they were flavorless. I wouldn’t even eat French fries! My mom had creative ways of camouflaging potatoes in our meals, but it was to no avail — I was NOT going to eat them. Does this potato story sound familiar to you? I know I can’t be the only person who had the same experience.

I was an adult when I actually started to eat potatoes, but it took baby steps for me to really enjoy them. First, I’d only eat them fried; next I tried them in stews and salads; and finally I started eating mashed potatoes. Today, I love the potato no matter how it’s prepared. I assume the same goes for you and millions of other people around the world. Did you know that the potato is one of the top 5 most consumed foods in the world? Here is why:

Those who studied the origin of the potato say this tuberous crop has been around for more than 8,000 years and there now exist about 4,000 varieties of potatoes. According to archaeological discoveries, the oldest of its kind, the wild potato species, was first cultivated in Peru by the Incas, specifically by those who lived in regions close to lake Titicaca. Now you know where potatoes come from in case it ever comes up in conversation!

Here’s another fact: Thanks to the proximity of other ancient cities, this important plant spread across the rest of South America. Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe during the 16th century. At first, the explorers didn’t understand how a “root” could be eaten, but as their resources started to deplete, they had no other choice than to consume potatoes. They even brought them on their voyage back to Europe.

Historians say that the crop was slow to be adopted in Europe before the 18th century due to several myths that circulated around the potato. For example, people believed it looked like “the devil’s plant” and it was sinful because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. Some said it even caused leprosy as well as gastrointestinal disorders. That’s why for centuries, countries like Italy, France and Russia only used potatoes to feed their livestock or as a decorative plant. Who would’ve thought!

It took the work of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the pharmacist for the French army, for people to start viewing the potato in a different light. It turns out that Parmentier, who was a prisoner of the Seven Year’s War and survived in jail thanks to the potato, spoke so highly of the crop to King Louis XVI that the French monarch ordered his farmers to start cultivating it and asked his soldiers to keep watch over the fields. People were so intrigued by this crop that villagers started to steal potato plant seeds from the royal gardens so they could plant them on their own. Eventually, they realized that this “mysterious crop” could cure the country’s starvation problem and that it only took three to four months to harvest the potato, which is a relatively short period compared to other crops.

The history of the potato then took an important turn as it became popular throughout all of France and the rest of Europe. Although it’s never been confirmed, there’s a theory that the potato arrived in the United States thanks to President Thomas Jefferson who, in a trip to the Gallic territory, was so impressed with the crop that he decided to bring it back to his native land. That’s how the name French fries was born and how fried potatoes are referred to in the United States. Interesting, right?

By the 19th century, the potato was being produced in large quantities in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world. It soon became a main ingredient in breads, noodles, stews, soups, fricasés, and casseroles, among other dishes. You could find them grilled, fried and boiled just like today. The only difference is that, thanks to advancements in technology, we now have potato powder, which we can use to make mashed potatoes and even stuffed potatoes in just minutes.

What about you? Do you like some of these potato dishes? Which other ones are you familiar with?

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