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25 january 2012

The global history of the potato is tragic: Andrew Smith devotes an entire chapter of his Reaktion Edible Potato to the European potato famines of the mid-19th century (most notoriously Ireland's, but there were similar famines in the Low Countries and eastward across continental Europe). Few other foods are so inextricably associated with disaster. Any crop that can fail – which is to say all of them – has failed at one time or another, but none with such grave human cost and such long-reaching consequences.

Smith, like other writers on the potato, recognizes that the perfection of the spud as a foodstuff is also what made potato farmers peculiarly vulnerable to its failure. You don't need much besides potatoes to live on, so various cultures in human history have grown potatoes and little more. The super tubers contain vitamins, fiber, and carbs; they're low in fat. With a little milk they're almost a balanced diet. With a lot of sour cream, cheddar cheese, bacon bits, salt, and pickled jalapeños, they're, um, not.

In fact, too much potato, in the form of tallowy fast-food fries, is almost as bad as a potato famine, though it will kill you somewhat less quickly. The infinite culinary adaptability of the potato is another of its ultimate enemies. Something so good for you can become really bad for you if you dress it up in all the things you shouldn't be eating. There even are times (as Henry Higgins might have put it) where the potato completely disappears. Some preparations involve taking a potato and practically reducing it to its constituent chemical elements before reshaping it into food. What is a Pringles actually made of?

Smith traces the diaspora of the potato from its unprepossessing origins in highland South America. Indians took to the little edible lumps, cultivated them, and often transformed them into freeze-dried chuño. This Incan staple, in its ground form, sounds like nothing so much as Potato Buds. There is nothing really new under the culinary sun.

Potatoes have gained some toeholds in haute cuisine, but they are more typed as peasant food than most other vegetables. In some cultural formulations, that's a badge of honor: "meat and potatoes" is plainly something to be proud of. In others ("potatoes and marge") that bluff pride can shade over into shame.

I myself am ambivalent about potatoes. Like any Midwestern American, I grew up eating them most nights of the week, and in lots of different forms. The aforementioned buds, or some store-brand equivalent, were common. But so were baked potatoes (in foil; my mother never ate the skins, so I never learned to either till I was an adult, my loss). We ate scalloped potatoes and mashed potatoes and of course french fries (frozen and baked on cookie sheets, more often than fast-food takeaway). A particular staple dish in Illinois was "raw fries," our name for what's variously called "cottage" or "home" or (in Indiana) "American fries." Peel and slice potatoes thin and fry them in Crisco on a black pan. Eat with ketchup.

Well, that sounds pretty bad for you, too. Really, the best way to eat a potato is to bake it (no time at all, in the microwave) and offer it up just as it is. I have a positively Biblical reaction to the idea of an unadorned baked potato, specifically Job 6.6: "Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt?" Or chives and butter, for that matter?

Smith, Andrew F. Potato: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.