When the potato, a cherished tuber indigenous to the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, first arrived in Europe, it was met with disgust, suspicion, and resentment. How could a vegetable that grew beneath the soil be holy or good? From Spain to Russia, the potato was regarded as a food fit only for the desperate and poor. One did not eat the potato because one wanted to; One ate the potato as a result of unfortunate circumstance.
The first edition of the Encylopaedia Britannica branded the potato as the most “demoralising esculent” (esculent being an antiquated word for something edible, typically used for plant foods). The slanderous remarks of the potato were in no way accurate or fair. Producing more calories per cultivated acre than any grain can, the potato’s prodigious growth gave the displaced, overpopulated, and impoverished Irish a better chance at surviving a cruel and unjust social climate. It nourished the prisoners of the Seven Year’s War, where it would win the heart of French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier who would become one of the most famous potato-advocates in history. The potato would give birth to the middle class during the Industrial Revolution while simultaneously softening the austerity and paucity of working class lives during the 18th and 19th centuries. Eventually, the potato would become the most important non-grain food crop in the world.
In a reference to the earliest Encylopedia Brittanica’s apprehensions of the potato, John Reader aptly titles his 2009 publication The Potato: A History of the Most Propitious Esculent. Propitious indeed, the potato is now regarded as one of the most historically significant vegetables of our species. Its story is well documented in literature from Richard Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949) to Larry Zuckerman’s The Potato (2004). My personal favorite remains Timothy John’s With Bitter Herbs They Shall Eat (1990) written on the potato’s domestication by Andean farmers and its immense genetic diversity in this cradle region. It was this book that lured me down the path of horticultural obsession, making the potato a pivotal crop in my personal history as well.
The potato is certainly not demoralizing (perhaps with the exception of potato vodkas). Though propitious it may be, it remains a commonplace vegetable, a simple food easy to prepare and comforting to consume. In many ways unremarkable (and certainly lacking glamour), the humble potato is the lowly esculent. It is the food of the people.