You could cook a potato almost any way and chances are you won’t be disappointed with the result.
But beyond this crop’s versatile charm and nutritional value is an unexpected history deeper than its own roots.
Rebecca Earle knows this best. The food historian and professor at the University of Warwick has spent several years tracing the history of the potato from its early origins in the Andes to the commonly consumed starch that makes it onto kitchen tables around the world.
In her latest book, Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato, Earle explains the crop’s evolution to become today’s global staple, but also dives into how the vegetable became central to government dietary policy over the years. By tracing the history of the potato, Earle says we can understand how modern diets became what they are.
“Our everyday diets are part of history and there’s a history of how we came to eat the way we do,” she says.
Potatoes made their way to Europe from Peru after the Spanish invaded the Americas in the 1500’s and brought the crop back to their home continent. This was part of the catalyst for its gradual spread into other corners of the world, Earle says.
Potatoes were quietly consumed by peasants for thousands of years in South America, and then in Europe. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that European governments and Enlightenment-era thinkers started taking an interest in what ordinary people were cooking in their kitchens. States began recommending potatoes as ideal crops, Earle says, as they believed the children who consumed the vegetable were particularly resilient.
“European states wanted these hearty robust populations of workers and sailors,” Earle says. “They started to become really interested in whether people were eating nourishing food and whether they could eat food that was a little cheaper, but was still nourishing.”
And at the same time that governments started involving themselves more in peoples’ diets, Earle says the competing idea emerged that the state should leave these dietary choices up to the individual. Earle points to this moment in time as the origin of the debate in contemporary society about how much the government should regulate and control the food we eat.
Rebecca Earle. Photo by Christophe Delory
In the early 20th century, Earle says nutritionists started to abandon their previous focus on proteins as nourishment to adopt a more holistic understanding of nutrition that included potatoes. And during wartimes, governments created whole ministries devoted to figuring out how to keep their populations fed. Potatoes became a big part of these efforts.
In Nazi Germany, potatoes were used as a means to further assert nationalism. Propaganda declared Germans as the “people of the potato,” asserting that eating the crop would make them more German. They attempted to breed potatoes that would thrive in German soil and went as far to determine a list of approved varieties. People were prohibited to grow anything that wasn’t on the list.
In the US, around the Second World War, the government released guidelines stressing the benefits of incorporating ample amounts of potatoes into everyday diets. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt said at the time that this was an attempt to let Americans make informed choices, his government distributed this advice throughout newspapers, radio, magazines and promotional pamphlets.
Earle says that following the history of the potato helps us understand the origins of the modern world. The potato’s story reminds us that innovation doesn’t always come from those named in history books. In the potato’s case, unknown farmers adapted their methods to influence the way we eat. It’s ultimately small farmers like those of the past, who will play a big role in solving the world’s current food security problems, she says.
“Ordinary people can make history,” Earle says. “We may not know their names, but we should be grateful to them. It’s those people we owe for the potatoes of today.”
Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato was published on June 25.