From the Andes to the stars

Published: Friday 15 May 2009

The humble potato has come a long way

IN 1852, Karl Marx described the peasantry as a sack of potatoes. The fickle attitude of farmers towards the short-lived Paris Commune had irked the old revolutionary. He would be a little less condescending towards peasants, elsewhere. But according to all evidence never thought it necessary to redeem himself with potatoes.

The potato has been hated and loved, hated and loved again. Its detractors include people as diverse as 17th century Scottish evangelicals and the 18th century American labour leader William Corbett. Charles Darwin sang its praise and Thomas Malthus thought the tuber could overturn his theory of population. In our times, the Zapatista rebels in Mexico fancy the spud as much as the fast food chain, McDonald's.

But the potato's influence in Ireland was unparalleled. In the late 18th century the Irish forsook all other crops for the knobbly tuber. It yielded more food per acre than wheat. The Irish population doubled between 1800 and 1840--without any significant expansion of industry or reform in agriculture. Potatoes lowered infant mortality, encouraged early marriage. The Irish were as remarkable for their health as for lack of variety at the dinner table, where potatoes supplied appetizer, dinner and dessert.

But during the summer of 1845, Ireland's potato crop was overtaken by a severe blight. Over the next 10 years, more than seven million died and two million left for Australia, Canada, and the US. The Irish population was reduced by a quarter. But the fondness for potatoes persisted: the Irish are known to eat potatoes so fast and hot that they stick to the ribs. The famine did leave farmers with lessons about the need to maintain a variety of crops and genes. Biodiversity--now a buzzword--is in some senses an offshoot of the Irish potato famine.

The potato itself has diversified, across the world and across classes and cuisines. The robust and floury Russian mashed potato is very different from its meaty English cousin. The aloo bhaja of Kolkata has an oily connotation very different from the tender aroma of the potato parmentier of Seville.

In 1995 the humble spud became the first vegetable to be planted in space.

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