Cover Image

PAPERBACK
$107.25



View/Hide Left Panel

Page 25

rye, and oat crops. Starvation, the recurrent age-old killer, once more stalked the land, and to offset disaster Frederick the Great decreed that all his subjects plant potatoes. That was nothing new: his father, grandfather, and great grandfather had made similar decrees over the previous 100 years or so—some even threatening to cut the nose and ears off anyone who refused. But, as before, it was all in vain. Convinced that potatoes caused leprosy, the Prussian peasants obeyed the king's troops but crept back at night and secretly pulled up the plants. Then, in self-righteous dignity they returned to their hovels to continue to suffer the agonies of empty bellies.

This was not an isolated incident. Similar scenes occurred in France, Sweden, Russia, Greece, and other nations. To Europeans of that era, the potato was dark, dirty, and highly sinister. Since it is not mentioned in the Bible, it was considered unfit for human consumption. Because it was not grown from seed, it was said to be evil. French experts insisted it would destroy the soil in which it was planted. Physicians all over Europe reported that it caused leprosy, syphilis, and scrofula. Botanists—even the great Linnaeus—cast suspicion on it because it is related to “devil's herb,” the deadly nightshade. Several countries considered it a dangerous aphrodisiac that would send their people uncontrollably mad with lust.

It was not until the late 1700s that Europeans finally took up the potato with gusto. Thereafter, it revolutionized their eating habits. It came to feed millions to the exclusion of most other vegetables. Today, nine-tenths of the world's crop is produced in Europe. The greatest per capita consumers of potatoes in the world are Poland, Ireland, and East Germany. The largest overall producer is the Soviet Union. The Netherlands is typical of many: of the 5 million tons of vegetables it produces annually, 4 million tons are potatoes. From this former Inca crop, Scandinavia, France, Germany, and Russia eventually developed “national” dishes such as potato dumplings and potato pancakes, not to mention their renowned liquors aquavit and vodka.

The turnaround in popularity of the potato was due mainly to certain “crop champions”—individuals of vision who dedicated their talents, emotions, and egos to the crop's cause. The most famous was Antoine Parmentier. After convincing Louis XVI of the potato's qualities, he tricked French peasants into thinking potatoes were fit only for royalty. As a result, the people pilfered the king's potato fields, and the plant quickly ended up in gardens all over France.

In Germany, potatoes were also given royal cachet by a series of royal advocates, including Frederick the Great; and in Greece, by King Otto I. In Sweden, the potato's protagonist was Jonas Alströmer, who “stole” two sacks of them from England and (despite being chased by the British navy) got them safely to Stockholm.

Such crop champions are what the plants in the following chapters require today.



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement