Of course not, but when the Spaniards brought them to Europe from South America at the end of the 16th century, they did not receive much of a welcome reception. Although in their homeland the Incas not only ate them, but also worshipped them to the point of burying potatoes together with their dead, because of their unappealing exterior many Europeans believed that they could cause sterility, leprosy, syphilis or even premature death. Why, exactly, syphilis remains a mystery to me.
The English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who was the first to bring potatoes to the island and started growing them on his farm in Ireland, gave several potatoes and its plants to Queen Elisabeth I as a token of appreciation. The queen decided to brag about it and invited important people from her Court to a reception where most of the dishes were made of potatoes. Unfortunately, the cooks were ignorant and used the stems and the leaves of the plants, and the potato itself (probably because of its unappealing exterior) they threw away. As a result, all who attended the reception almost died of food poisoning. Afterwards, potatoes were banned from growing in England. And not only there. They were banned in Burgundy as well. It is interesting how the Germans, who are the biggest potato consumers today, used to hate potatoes to the point where in 1774, during the famine, Frederick the Great was giving them for free, and the people refused to eat them. And here I believed that if one is hungry, one will eat anything. Obviously, that is not entirely true. I, for one, would never eat spiders, even if my life depended on it. But that is for another time.
In France, the military chemist and botanist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier used his ingenuity to impose the potato as an edible crop. During the 7-year war, Parmentier was captured five times by the Prussians and in their prisons, he was forced to survive only on a potato diet. Later, an essay of his on potatoes won a contest, with which the new crop was considered the best substitute for flour. In 1785, Parmentier managed to persuade King Louis XVI to help him. The king allowed Parmentier to sow 100 acres of empty lots outside of Paris and appointed armed guards to protect the land and the crop. The rumors surrounding the heavily guarded king’s land made people very curious and they were convinced that the crops were extremely valuable. And if something deserves to be guarded, then it should be worth stealing. One night, Parmentier told the guards to leave the place and, just as he had predicted, the local farmers broke in and stole the potatoes, sowing them on their own land. From that moment on, the new food was expeditiously distributed all over France. Some even say that Marie Antoinette loved to put a potato flower in her hair. And of course, all noble ladies would do the same. That is how fashion trends start.
Between 1845 and 1849, the whole potato crop in Ireland was destroyed by a plague, which caused the disaster known as “the Great Hunger”. As potatoes were the basic food source, millions staved to death, and others were forced to emigrate to North America and Australia to survive. Whole towns were abandoned, and in just a few years the Irish population shrunk from 9 to 4 million people. This explains the Irish saying, “Only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on, potatoes and matrimony.”
In addition to food, the potato in ancient times was used for diverse purposes. The Incas believed that raw potatoes could ease the pain from broken bones, headaches, could get rid of warts. The potato juice heals sun burns, ulcers and gastritis, and the gargle with it helps with inflamed gums. And the peels would heal swellings, abrasions, and back pain. The discopathy sufferers should be informed. And the gentlemen, whose wives are suffering from their smelly feet, can sink their feet in a potato infused water. They say it helps.
I suppose you heard that in 1995, the plant was taken to Space on board the shuttle Columbia. Sounds crazy, but it is true. Not only was it taken to Space, but it also grew there. This calls for a special day, right? Well, there is, and it is the 19th of August, when we celebrate the Day of the Potato and we have to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And in celebration of the Day you could also enjoy vodka, which is also made from potatoes.
So far, I have not given you salad recipes, but today I have prepared one for you. And it is named after the very same Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, you just read about. Many French dishes containing potatoes are named after him because of his ingenuity in overcoming anti-potato prejudice in Europe.
– 800 gr of potatoes
– 250 gr of cherry tomatoes
– 12 sun-dried tomatoes in oil
– 4 sprigs of basil
– 2 onions
– 3 tablespoons dry white wine
– 2 tablespoons wine vinegar
– 3 tablespoons olive oil
– salt, pepper to taste
Cook the potatoes with their skin on for 20 to 25 minutes. Peel and chop the onions. Drain the potatoes and peel them still hot, then cut them into cubes and pour the white wine and vinegar over them. Add the onions, dried and drained tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and oil. Pepper and salt and mix. Add olives, if desired. Pour the potato salad in a dish and keep it in the refrigerator until ready to serve. When serving add the basil leaves.
I guess this salad will also go like a vodka appetizer. And there is no need to wait for the Day of the Potato to try it.