Laura Dean Bennett
As potatoes marched across the continent, they were proving their incredible value to the people who grew and ate them.
Europeans’ health improved as they included the potatoes in their diets.
Diseases like tuberculosis and measles weren’t decimating whole swaths of their population due to the nutritious properties of potatoes.
Nowhere was their value more dramatically or more tragically demonstrated than in Ireland.
Sir Walter Raleigh first introduced potato farming to Ireland in 1589 on a huge plot of land near Cork.
It took several generations of getting used to, but, as it did everywhere in Europe, the potato became a staple of the Irish diet.
In the 1840s, a major outbreak of potato blight, which was a fungal disease, swept through Europe, wiping out the potato crop in many countries.
The Irish working class lived largely on potatoes, so, when the blight reached Ireland, they lost their main food source.
This potato famine lasted six years and left many families with no choice but to struggle to survive or emigrate out of Ireland.
Entire towns were deserted.
Over one and a half million people left Ireland for the United States, Canada and Australia.
In the space of a few short years, the population of Ireland dropped by almost half.
Over the course of the potato famine, almost one million people died from starvation or disease.
Thankfully, America’s history with potatoes was nothing like what Ireland experienced.
Potatoes arrived in the Colonies in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests of plants to Jamestown.
The shipment was sent to Governor Francis Wyatt, the governor of Virginia.
It contained potatoes and potato plants, as well as other vegetables for the settlement’s garden.
The shipment was a wonderful gift to Jamestown, to the future of the colonies and to our country.
But it took nearly 100 years for the first permanent potato farms in North America to be established.
They were planted in 1719, near Londonderry, New Hampshire, by Scotch-Irish immigrants who were wise enough to bring them from “the old country.”
King Louis XIV, while entertaining some famous Americans, did a lot to popularize the potato.
He had his chef create a feast with only potato dishes, a concept he realized was possible when, during a period of imprisonment in Germany, he had been fed only potatoes.
Benjamin Franklin, Colonial America’s ambassador to France, was in attendance at this feast in 1767.
Both Franklin and Thomas Jefferson travelled to France and undoubtedly brought back with them a lot of good ideas from French cuisine.
One of the best, in my opinion, was French fries, which were officially introduced to the country by President Thomas Jefferson, who served them in the White House during his Presidency (1801-1809).
But until the early 1800s, many Americans still considered the potato a better food for animals than for themselves.
As late as the middle of the 19th Century, the Farmer’s Manual recommended that potatoes “be grown near the hog pens as a convenience towards feeding the hogs.”
But Americans were coming around.
In 1853, millionaire railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was staying at a fashionable resort in Saratoga Springs, New York.
He complained to his waiter that the boiled potatoes he had been served were cut too thick.
They were, of course, immediately and urgently sent back to the kitchen.
In a fit of pique, and to spite the haughty diner, the chef on duty, sliced some potatoes paper thin, fried them in hot oil, salted and served them.
But rather than being put out by the substitution, Vanderbilt loved his “Saratoga Crunch Chips,” as he called them.
Potato chips have been an America favorite ever since.
As popular as potatoes were in America, they weren’t really grown commercially on a grand scale until the Russet Burbank potato was developed by American horticulturist Luther Burbank in 1872.
That’s when the commercial Idaho potato industry really took off.
Burbank, trying to improve the Irish potato and prevent another devastating potato blight, developed a hybrid that was extremely disease resistant.
He sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150, which he used to travel to Santa Rosa, California.
In Santa Rosa, he established a nursery garden, greenhouse and experimental farms that have become famous throughout the world.
By the early 1900s, the Russet Burbank potato began appearing throughout Idaho and from there, around the world.
During the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska (1897-1898), potatoes were practically worth their weight in gold.
In fact, they might have actually been worth more than that, because gold was more plentiful in the Klondike than potatoes, and a miner couldn’t eat gold!
In October 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space.
NASA and the University of Wisconsin created the technology for growing potatoes on space missions.
Their goal was producing nutritious food for astronauts on long space voyages, and eventually, feeding future space colonies.
Besides being remarkable for its adaptability to various soils and climates – and even to space ships – potatoes are kind of a miracle food.
It is among the most nutritious vegetable in the world. Here’s a breakdown of the nutritional value for a medium white potato, with skin:
• About 110 calories
• It has more potassium than bananas or broccoli
• It provides 35 percent of the daily value of Vitamin C and 10 percent of the daily value of B6
• It contains two grams of sugar
• It is fat free, sodium free, cholesterol free and an excellent source of fiber
Once upon a time, and even to this day, people have used potatoes as medicine.
Some of the “old folks” believed that eating potatoes with other foods would prevent indigestion and that facial blemishes could be banished by washing with cool potato juice.
Raw slices were wrapped on broken bones to promote faster healing.
Grated potatoes and raw potato juice have been used to treat frostbite and sunburn.
Potatoes have been carried in pockets to cure rheumatism or toothache.
And a sore throat was said by some to be able to be cured by tying a raw potato slice around one’s throat.
Whether or not we tie them to our throats, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that potatoes have changed the course of human history.
There are now more than 200 varieties of potatoes – from the venerable Russets to the reds, blues, whites, yellows, purples, fingerlings and petites.
And don’t even get me started on sweet potatoes!
This time of year, Pocahontas County farmers are pulling bushels of them out of the ground for the savvy housewife to pack away and store in the cellar for the winter.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could make it without potatoes – mashed, baked, scalloped or any way you want to fix them!
I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world without French fries, would you?
“Only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on, potatoes and matrimony.” – Irish Saying