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Musings » History and Social Influence of the Potato
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Salaman, Redcliffe
Cambridge University Press 1949

This may be the first book in the now familiar genre of ”Oranges”, “Chocolate” or “Salt”, topics which would seem to be too nebulous and unfocused to allow anyone to write a “biography” and yet which have been very successful. These are sweeping narrative histories which aim squarely at the general reader, to everyone’s delight.

The author was born Nathan Salaman, one of the 15 children of a prosperous London Jewish businessman in 1874. The family lived in Redcliffe Road in Chelsea and he decided that his career would benefit by changing his first name to Redcliffe and shedding the very ethnic ”Nathan”. He did very well at Cambridge and became an experimental biologist.

After wheat, corn and rice the white potato is a major crop supporting the lives of millions of people worldwide. It originated in the Andean regions of South America where it has been cultivated for millennia. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of varieties of Solanum tuberosum still to be found in remote Andean villages. In recent decades a very faint trickle of these varieties has begun to seep into our farmers markets and even our supermarkets. It is almost commonplace to see bags of small potatoes in 3 or 4 colors.

For the most part the commercial stalwarts have been large russset potatoes, smaller white potatoes and the still smaller red skinned potatoes which are used to make potato salad. Neither the yam nor the sweet potato is a true potato in the botanical sense.

The first white potatoes were said to have been taken back to England by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1588 but Salaman demolishes that myth very quickly. They were reliably recorded in Spain by as early as 1570 but did not become very popular.

Salaman looks into the powerful association in the public’s mind between Ireland and the potato. In the United States the plain white potato was known as the “Irish potato” until very recently. It was taken to North America for the first time in 1719 by some Irish Presbyterians but even before then this term was in the literature. Its success in Ireland took place quite rapidly unlike Spain, The Netherlands and France. Parmentier made it popular in France but it was not integral to survival the way it was in Ireland.

Quite probably the climate had a lot to do with it. The potato flourishes in cool, slightly moist conditions and these are found in most parts of that land. The tuber’s high yield of nutritive value for the cost invested in growing it was another key factor. We tend to think of it solely as a source of carbohydrate but there are other important nutrients in it, especially in the skin. The absentee English landlords were delighted to find a cheap food to feed the Irish peasantry working their estates. It follows the same logic as growing breadfruit in the West Indies to feed the slaves.

There is a masterful analysis of what took place during the Irish famine, when thousands died and many more thousands left the country permanently . It is not so well known that all during that period Ireland was a net exporter of food such as butter and eggs. The big farms were not going to let the little matter of a famine spoil their income and profits. If a local Irish person could pay for the food he was welcome to buy it. If not well then see what could be done with charity.

The book contains immensely detailed descriptions and analyses of the role played by the potato in other parts of Great Britain and some of Europe. It was not by chance that the communist uprisings in European capitals took place in 1848.The potato blight infested much of continental Europe and the weather was just as unseasonable as it had been in Ireland, far wetter and colder than in any other recent decade. There was very serious starvation and the associated epidemics killed the weakened survivors much as in Ireland. The difference was that the governments of the other countries tried to help more effectively.

Salaman’s book has been updated a couple of times but the essential arguments and observations have not been changed. It is a solid reference for anyone who is interested in what is going on the in the world of the potato these days. French fries are for ever!