Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, some spuddy #FridayFunFacts
As we learnt a couple of weeks ago with the dutch carrots, vegetable history is far more interesting than one might think. The noble potato is probably the most interesting, but that's not why we're doing this. This week, we delve into the world of potato fun facts because, as the famous foodstuff of Ireland, we're honouring the birthday of one of 42courses' first fans, the ever so Irish Aiden Connolly.
Let's start at the beginning. Potatoes were developed - yes, genetically modified - by the Peruvians of 10,000 years ago. Natural potatoes are from the nightshade family, a highly poisonous plant. Making any wild potatoes safe to eat required reducing the glycoalaloid content to between one-fifteenth and one-twentieth of its normal level. This raises some questions: how did they do this, or know that this is what they needed to do, and that the effort would even result in the deliciousness that is Pringles? Mysteries I tell you.
Everybody loves a good roast potato today, but when the potato was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century, it wasn't exactly a hit. With staples of wheat and bread, most of the populace turned their grubby noses up at potatoes, which they thought were poisonous, and they were even made illegal in France between 1748 and 1772.
It wasn't going much better in Prussia. The king tried to introduce the potato as a second staple food as a safeguard against wheat shortages.....and failed. His people refused because they didn't want to be told what to eat. So, in a feat of highly advanced behavioural economics, he banned the potato for the masses, declared it a royal vegetable, and told his guards to guard the potato field very badly. In no time at all, there was a thriving potato black market in Prussia.
Some time later, a medical army officer named Antoine Auguste Parmentier was imprisoned in Prussia and fed, guess what, potatoes. He rather liked them so when he went back to France he took a leaf out Prussia's book and got Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to walk through the countryside wearing potato blossoms. The french, being fashion focused, of course, followed their lead and not only wore, but started eating potatoes.
Which brings us to the Irish. Too rural to be fashion conscious and too poor to be picky, nobody took on potatoes quite like the Irish. So, when the famine hit in 1845 it wiped out almost half of the potatoes which, tragically, resulted in Ireland losing a quarter of its population by 1852. About 1 million people died of starvation, and about 2 million people fled. To this day, the population still hasn't reached the level it was pre-famine.
Okay, that wasn't such a fun fact, but it seems to have had some good results: Ireland has been at the forefront of famine relief and its people have given more to the fundraising efforts of Live Aid per head of population than any other nation in the world.