Food for Thought Seminar: Fall 2008
Abigail Evans 2009
The history of the potato began roughly 8,000 years ago in the Andes mountain range of South America. Wild potatoes grew in abundance, with approximately 200 varieties found in the fertile region. The dispersal of the potato plant from the Andes began after the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors, and was subsequently introduced into the European diet. In the early 17th century, the potato plant was added to botanical gardens and herbalists’ encyclopedias. The first potato varieties in North America were brought from Europe by a group of Scottish-Irish immigrants settling in New England in approximately 1719. By the 19th century, potatoes were grown extensively throughout Europe and New England, becoming a significant crop for rural farmers. Since its introduction to our nation, the potato plant has been a food staple in the American diet. 2008 marks the International Year of the Potato, which aims to raise awareness of the key role played by the “humble tuber” in agriculture, the economy the growing world food security.
The potato arrived at a crucial time in Europe during the late 1700s, when many countries were devastated by famine. After initial hesitation, European farmers began to grow the crop on a large scale. Increased potato consumption during the 19th century is credited with helping to reduce the scourge of diseases such as scurvy and measles, contributing to higher birth rates and the population explosion in Europe. However, the tubers that were being cloned and cultivated across North America and Europe belonged to a few genetically similar varieties. This meant they were highly vulnerable: a pest or disease that struck one plant could spread quickly and destroy the crop. The first sign of impending problems came in 1844-45 when a mold disease destroyed potato fields across continental Europe from Belgium to Russia. The worst famine occurred in Ireland, where potato supplied 80 percent of caloric intake. Between 1845 and 1848, late blight destroyed three successive potato crops, leading to famine that caused the death of approximately one million people. Most potato varieties grown in Europe became extinct. The Irish catastrophe led to concerted efforts in developing more productive and disease-resistant varieties.
The potato crop protected America’s population from starvation and encouraged self-sufficiency; it represented a food whose ease of preparation lightened the burden for the average American farm wife. In the early part of the 19th century most Americans considered the potato fodder for animals, in addition to human consumption. As late as the middle of the century, the Farmer’s Manual suggested that potatoes be “grown near hog pens as a convenience towards feeding the hogs.” Historically, Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania were the main U.S. potato-producing states. It was not until 1872, when American horticulturist Luther Burbank developed the Russet Burbank potato, that the Idaho potato industry expanded. Burbank, while trying to improve the Irish potato, developed a hybrid that was more disease resistant, as to avoid a famine that plagued the Irish population. As settlement expanded west in the late 19th century, the invention of irrigation systems and the development of refrigerated rail transport resulted in states such as Idaho, Washington, and Colorado to take the lead in U.S. potato production.
Today the potato is one of the most important sources of food energy. After rice, wheat and corn, the potato has served for centuries as a food staple. In 2005, the Food and Agriculture Commission confirmed that worldwide production was approximately 322 million metric tons. There are several main “classes” of potatoes; this originally included white round, russet and red, and has recently been extended to include various specialty and gourmet types. In the 1812 Garden, the main type of potato grown is “Cups,” a rare pre-blight variety that would have been typical of kitchen gardens in the very early 19th century.
In the 19th century, typical potato storage facilities consisted of small storage cellars or basements connected to the main home or barn. Today, massive storage facilities hold large volumes of various types of potatoes. Potato storage is tricky, but with a few simple guidelines you can successfully store potatoes over the winter. First, you must harvest your crop. Wait two to three weeks after the vines have died or you will uncover small potatoes that have not fully ripened. Once two to three weeks have passed, carefully dig a foot outside the trench or potato mound with a spade. The skins of the newly harvested potatoes need time to mature, and should be cured before storing to “toughen their skins.” Spread them out in a protected place where the temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees. After a one or two week curing period, move the crop to a dark, damp area such as a basement or garage. Do not wash the potatoes immediately. Instead, let them sit—the skins will thicken and minor wounds should be scarred over.
Potatoes should never be refrigerated—this causes the starches in the potatoes to be converted to sugars, giving them an unnaturally sweet taste. The sugar will caramelize during cooking producing brown potatoes with a poor taste. However at room temperature they will only last for a week or two before losing too much moisture and shriveling. Ideally they should be stored in a well-ventilated, dark, cool place at about 40 degrees F with high humidity, around 90 percent. Potatoes will then store for roughly three to six months. Make sure they in a dark area because any sunlight will cause them to sprout. Additionally, the temperature must stay somewhat consistent so the potatoes do not freeze. Finally, air should be able to circulate through the potato pile to prevent condensation. Potatoes can be stored in a loosely woven basket or slotted bin. Other harvesters prefer a plain burlap bag to cover the potatoes. Never store potatoes in close proximity to fruit, for hormones produced by ripening fruits will cause the potatoes to sprout or rot prematurely.
Zuckerman, Larry, “The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World,” North Point Press, 1999.
“Potato Diffusion,” International Year of the Potato Mission, Retrieved October 7, 2008, <www.potato2008.org>
“The Potato,” Fresh Food Central, Retrieved October 10, 2008, <freshfoodcentral.com>
Villas, James, “Villas at Table: A Passion for Food and Drink,” The Lyons Press, 1998.
Evans, Carol, Interview with family member. Harding, Deborah, “Harvesting Homegrown Potatoes,” Vegetable Gardens, June 22, 2008.
“Economic Research Service,” United States Department of Agriculture, May 2008, <www.ers.usda.gov>
Bibel, Mike, Nancy, “Root cellaring: natural cold storage of fruits & vegetables,” Garden Way Publishing, 1991.
Potato storage images: www.farmelectronics.co.uk