“The biological and cultural consequences of 1492”
How does that saying go? “In the year of 1492; Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain. He sailed by night; he sailed by day; He used the stars to find his way…” Hate him or love him, that tyrannical beast changed the world.
Quoting Alfred W. Crosby, author of The Columbian Exchange, “The world’s long-separated ecosystems abruptly collided and mixed in a biological bedlam that underlies much of the history we learned in school. Columbus’s voyages reknit the seams of Pangea.”
And sailing back on those ships, from South America back to Europe, soon to play a starring role in the radical changes to come, was the humble potato.
Before the introduction of the potato, European living standards were akin to those of parts of Africa and Bangladesh today. Their tilled acreage and their labor were devoted to grains, their main crop. But, the potato’s calories per acre are higher than corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans. Growing underground, the fleshy tubers are not limited by the rest of the plant. Potatoes yield abundantly and adapt readily to diverse climates, as long as the weather remains cool and moist enough for the plants to gather sufficient water from the soil to form the starchy tubers. They are herbaceous perennials with leaves that die back after flowering, fruiting, and the tuber formation. The dieback is in response to decreasing day length. There are at least 4000 varieties of potatoes worldwide. However, they do not keep well in storage for long periods of time and are vulnerable to molds—a vulnerability that would later have tragic consequences.
Potatoes were domesticated approximately 7,000-10,000 years ago and thought to be native to Andes of Peru, “the story of the potato began millennia before the concept of nation-states existed” according to Charles Crissman, a researcher at the International Potato Center. Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), as it is known by its Spanish-language name, is a research facility based in Lima, Peru.
Of the presently cultivated potatoes worldwide, 99 percent are descended from a wild, inedible variety called Solanum brevicaule. These wild potatoes can still be found growing throughout the Americas from the southwestern United States to southern Chile. The potato the Spanish Conquistadors brought back to Europe in 1536 is descended from islands on the southeastern coast of Chile. Through selective breeding, each region developed its own unique variety of edible tuber, with Peru in the lead with almost 3000 varieties.
The potato is in the (deadly?) nightshade family, the same as tomato and eggplant. The vegetative and fruiting parts of the plant contain toxic solanine and are not fit for human consumption. Ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar made the potato slow to be adopted by the European farmers, but it eventually became a staple. The potato fed rapidly growing populations, and permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750-1950. It fueled the rise of the west and set the template for modern agriculture. Because potatoes are not planted by seed but rather by pieces of the original tuber, Europeans planted huge areas with all clones. This is the first example of monoculture.
Due to lack of genetic diversity the crop was vulnerable to disease. In 1845-1849 a fungus-like disease (oomycete Phytophthora infestans) known as late blight, quickly spread its way through the poor, working class areas in the highlands of Scotland and Ireland. Known as the Great Irish Famine, it was a period of mass starvation, disease, and emigration. Almost two million people died or emigrated, changing the population of Ireland forever.
Another enemy to the potato is the Colorado potato beetle. It is a native to North America, where it originally fed on buffalo bur (Solanum rostratum). First reported in eastern Nebraska in 1859, it happily adopted the new host plant (Solanum tuberosum) and rapidly spread eastward on potato crops over the next decades eventually making it to Europe. This led to the development of the first artificial pesticide, a form of arsenic. Competition to produce the ever-more potent arsenic blends launched the modern pesticide industry. Welcome aboard the toxic treadmill. With each new chemical compound created, eventually the pests adapt. This, in turn, caused the “Green Revolution” in the 1940’s and 50’s, an explosion of agricultural productivity that transformed farms all over the world.
Introduced to the United States many times throughout the 1699’s, the earliest record of cultivated potatoes in North America was in Londonderry, NH in 1719 by Scotch-Irish immigrants. The climate in New England is akin to Europe, so the tubers successfully grew, providing important vitamins and minerals to the colonists in their new-found land. High in vitamin C, B6, potassium, magnesium and niacin, potatoes kept away scurvy which was a major cause of suffering during this era. In fact, potatoes alone supply almost every vital nutrient needed for a healthy diet and are easily grown, providing more nutritious abundant food on less land than any other crop and in a wide variety of habitats.
French Fries were introduced to the United States when Thomas Jefferson served them in the White House during his presidency 1801-1809. Referred to as “potatoes served in the French manner”, they were unintentionally created when a French chef reheated already fried potato wedges in very hot oil. To his surprise, the potato wedges puffed up and were crispy and light.
Potatoes in the French manner:
Cut new potatoes into thin slices, put them in boiling fat; fry both sides until golden brown, drain, then salt.
Oven fried French Fries
Heat oven to 425
Peel 2 medium sized russet potatoes. Cut into 1/4 inch thick slices. Place in cold water for 15 minutes. Drain, then dry with a cotton towel. Dry the bowl then put the fries back in and mix with 1 Tbs. olive oil. Spread the fries onto a wire rack or a baking tin lined with aluminum foil. Do not overlap. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes turning them over halfway through.
Saratoga Crunch Chips:
In 1853 railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was dining at a fashionable resort in Saratoga Springs, NY. He complained that his french fries were cut too thick and had them sent back to the kitchen. To spite his snobby guest, chef George Clum sliced some potatoes paper thin, fried them in hot oil, salted and served them. To everyone’s surprise, Vanderbilt loved what were then called “Saratoga Crunch Chips”.
Thinly slice new potatoes, rinse with cold water to release the starch. Pat dry with a cotton towel. Heat quality lard until potatoes sizzle. Continuously turn to prevent them from sticking together. Drain and salt. Let cool.
Light and Crispy Baked Potato Chips:
Set oven at 450. Coat a large baking tray with cooking spray.
Slice 4 medium russet potatoes into thin, 1/8 inch slices.
In large bowl, toss potato slices together with 1 Tbs. olive oil and a dash of salt to coat evenly. Spread a single layer of potatoes on the prepared baking tray.
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until light golden in color. Be careful to make sure the potatoes do not brown and over cook. Allow to completely cool before serving. For added flavor, add additional salt, nutritional yeast, parmesan cheese, or garlic salt.