Natural History of the Kitchen: The Potato


Photograph: Cpt. Obvious

Welcome to Natural History of the Kitchen, by EMD's Stephanie Butler. Each week, Stephanie explores the background of an appliance, gadget or product that helped to make cooking what it is today. This week: Potatoes.

Pity the humble potato. Misunderstood for so much of early culinary history, and now relegated to permanent side dish status by a carb-fearing public. You wouldn't know it just by looking at the rows of Russets lined up at your local supermarket, but potatoes are one of the few foods that have actually changed the course of modern history. Can you picture American history without the Kennedy family? You've got the Irish potato famine to thank for that. Where would McDonald's be sans French fries, and what would happen to Hanukkah without latkes? This week's Natural History Of The Kitchen tells the story of Europe's great potato conversion. Break out the Ruffles, everyone.

An Unfit Food

Potatoes were grown in South America when the first Spanish settlers arrived, and were among the plants and animals sent back to the mother country by excited conquistadors. Unfortunately, the turkeys and chocolate went over much easier than did the potatoes and tomatoes, which were both regarded as poisonous. Both vegetables are part of the nightshade family, which contain alkaloids than can be fatal to humans (tobacco also belongs to this vegetable family, and nicotine is an alkaloid, albeit one with more pleasant effects). The first potatoes were sent to the Spanish royal family in 1588, who promptly gave them to the Pope. He, in turn, sent them to a botanist, who examined and planted them, calling the unknown plant tartufli, or "little truffle".

That's one of the kinder early nicknames for the potato, also called "edible stones" by Spanish soldiers, who viewed them as substandard horse feed. Part of the problem seems to be that few people thought to cook the potato, and even fewer thought to peel them. This led to complaints of terrible indigestion from the peasants who ate the potatoes, and a lack of inclination on the part of the upper classes to try them out. It wasn't until 1763 that a French army pharmacist took it as his personal mission to bring the potato to the masses.

Partmentier, the Hero

blossomParmentier1The story of the potato is also the story of Antoine Parmentier. Fresh from a stint in the Seven Years War, he had seen first hand the dangers of malnutrition and the great nutritive properties of the (properly cooked) potato. To say that Parmentier was running against public opinion is putting it mildly: the French believed eating potatoes caused leprosy, and in 1748 some regional parliaments had even forbidden growing the plant. But widespread crop failures led to starvation in the years before the French Revolution, and something had to be done to solve the crisis. The government held a contest for the best idea to combat famine; Parmentier entered his treatise on the potato, it won, and the potato was declared a miracle food almost overnight. [Illustration via The Potato Museum.]

Thus began a golden age for the potato. Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI planted fields of them, and started a potato-flower-wearing fad amongst the aristocracy. During the Revolution, the Paris Commune ordered the Tuileries gardens to be replanted entirely in potatoes. Parmentier was a hero: statues were erected in his honor, streets were named after him, and there's even a Parmentier stop on the Paris Metro. The most fitting tributes to Parmentier, however, are the number of potato dishes named after him. Here's a recipe for a simple potage Parmentier, a pureed potato leek soup.

Potage Parmentier

  • 1 lb potato, peeled and diced (skins on or off)
  • 3 cups leeks, thinly sliced (white and tender green parts only)
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 4-6 tablespoons whipping cream or 2-3 tablespoons softened butter
  • 2-3 tablespoons minced parsley or chives

Simmer vegetables, water and salt together, partially covered, 40-50 minutes until vegetables are tender. Mash the vegetables in the soup with a fork, or puree in blender. Correct seasoning. 
Off heat and just before serving, stir in cream or butter by spoonfuls. Pour into a tureen or soup cups and decorate with the herbs. Good hot, cold or room temperature.

Dawn Wells Peels Potatoes

And if that's too classical for you, how about Marianne from Gilligan's Island shilling for Idaho potatoes?


Further Reading

Stephanie Butler

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Comment Feed

  1. that's a pretty cool demo of peeling a potato by boiling. i've never tried that before or even heard about it. will have to try. marianne is still looking good in the video isn't she ;-) so what's the best potato to use to bake? i really want to achieve nice crispy crunchy outer shells while remaining nice and soft inside :-)

    • Moira

      I like that really crispy shell, too.

      I bake Idaho potatoes at 400 to 415 F for 1 - 1 1/4 hours (the range is due to the size of the potato). And I don't wrap them in anything - just scrub and pierce several times to keep it from exploding. Mmmmmmm.

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