The foods of the Americas: How the potato reached Europe
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on notable ingredients native to the Americas. In Part 1 we learned that archaeologists have discovered potato remains that date back to 500 B.C.E. in the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile. Today’s column traces the journey of the potato to Europe, where the French fried potato was born… but is it really French?
By Michelle Bakeman
The year was 1532. The Inca Empire was in turmoil. Rebellions were rampant, and what was worse, the Inca were engaged in a civil war. The emperor Huayna Capac was dead, having succumbed to one of the diseases spreading at epidemic proportions across the Americas, gifts of the Spanish invaders. He had left behind two sons, Huascar, his legitimate son, and Atahualpa, his half-brother. The two brothers reigned peacefully for only a short time after their father’s death, Huascar ruling the southern part of the Empire, and Atahualpa the north, the area of his mother’s birth. Huascar, believing that his legitimacy should supersede any claim to power made by his brother, demanded that Atahualpa swear an oath of loyalty.
Needless to say, Atahualpa refused and even declared a new Inca capital in the modern-day area of Quito. War began, as Huascar invaded the north, and the two brothers battled for control, and this was the moment when Francisco Pizarro and his soldiers entered the scene. The situation could not have been more advantageous for the Spaniards, who, in just eight years, managed to all but wipe out the indigenous population, their culture, and their architecture. They came in the search of fortune and used the divisions in the empire against its peoples. Pizarro and Atahualpa met in Cajamarca. Atahualpa had just defeated his brother in the battle of Chimborazo and was on his way to Cusco to claim his throne when Pizarro demanded his allegiance, reading aloud to him the standard decree read by the conquistadores in the New World, which stated, in Castilian, that the native peoples must surrender and accept Christianity or face war.
Atahualpa was appalled. The Spaniards imprisoned him inside the Coricancha in Cusco, the Temple of the Sun. Atahualpa agreed to pay a ransom of one room filled with gold and two of silver for his release. The Spanish agreed, and then later, after receiving their fortunes, realizing that Atahualpa’s hold over his people was impossible to usurp, and understanding that they were outnumbered, they accused him of rebelling against them and against Christianity, and they executed him anyway.
After the Spaniards murdered Atahalpa, they set about creating a viceroyalty (a defined area of land ruled by a Spanish governor) in the region called Peru. They sought to explore the territories to the north and east, a region that would eventually gain the name, Viceroyalty of New Granada (today Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama). One such explorer was Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (1495-1579). He led an expedition of 900 men up the Magdalena River into the interior of the area that is now Colombia in 1535, with the desire to conquer it for Spain. He and his men struggled for eight months, defeating the native peoples they encountered as they traveled inland, and finally reaching the Colombian plains, the land of the Chibcha people, who fled to higher ground. Quesada claimed victory, went back to Spain, and eventually returned to the New World with a belief that he could find the fabled El Dorado, the city of gold. In 1569, he set out with 500 men to find it, and after wandering for almost three years, he relented, returning with only 25 of his company.
Romantics like to claim that, having failed to find the city of gold, Quesada found something even more precious to take to Spain, that being the potato, placing it in Europe by 1572. He had no way of knowing at the time that he would be credited for bringing to the Old World one of the ingredients from the New that would change the way human life would be sustained forever. After all, potatoes, as the Inca showed us, can grow almost anywhere, unlike wheat and rice. They mature in roughly three months and can be eaten immediately, whereas a grain like wheat requires processing. Additionally, potatoes feed triple the amount of people per acre of cultivation.
The people of Spain were not immediately enamored with the potato, which was ugly, bumpy, and covered in dirt. They at first referred to it as “tartuffo,” assuming that it was a kind of truffle, but due to its hideous facade, its potential for human nourishment was, for the time being, overlooked, and it was seen as food for livestock. The Spanish government, becoming aware of the potato’s ability to prevent scurvy, did eventually employ it to feed its navy and military on long journeys.
By 1585, the potato had made its way to England. Over the course of the next fifteen years, it arrived in Belgium, Germany, Austria, Ireland, and France by 1600. It is said that in 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh, a British explorer, planted the potato on his Irish estate. He later gifted a potato plant to Queen Elizabeth I. Excited about the new crop, the queen planned a royal feast with the idea of featuring the potato in every course of the meal. Catastrophically, the royal cooks had no way of knowing that the stems and leaves of the plant were poisonous. They regarded the root itself, the actual potato, as undesirable and tossed it out, and proudly placed upon the royal table a dish of boiled leaves and stems. Of course, everyone became deathly ill, and the potato was immediately banned from court. Naturally then, it was regarded with suspicion, as most Europeans thought it inconceivable that the leaves and stalk of a plant could be poisonous, but its root edible. Rumors about the crop spread like wildfire across the continent, and the potato met with slander at every turn, accused of causing all of the following: leprosy, promiscuity, syphilis, sterility, and scrofula (tuberculosis of the neck involving infection of the lymph nodes). In 1748, the cultivation and consumption of the potato were outlawed by the French Parliament with the following decree: “In view of the fact that the potato is a pernicious substance whose use can cause leprosy, it is hereby forbidden, under pain of fine, to cultivate it.” This law persisted for 24 years, until 1772. So what changed in 1772? After all, the crop had been mostly cultivated for the purpose of feeding livestock, and even if the people could have overcome their fears, they felt that it would have been beneath them to consume what their animals were eating.
The year was 1771. A man named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who was a French chemist and botanist, officially entered the potato scene. Parmentier had served in the French army during the Seven Years’ War and was imprisoned by the Prussians, who gave him little more than potatoes to eat. As Prussia had been stricken with famine in 1744, King Frederick the Great, who was a fan of the potato, ordered his army to eat it. And when his people were starving once again in 1774, the king gave the peasants free potatoes to sustain them and ordered them cultivated (Today, visitors to the gravesite of Frederick the Great leave behind potatoes to honor him). After the war, Parmentier wrote a paper he entitled “Chemical Examination of the Potato,” with the goal to prove that the tuber could combat European famine. His study received great attention, and Parmentier was granted an audience with King Louis XVI of France. He managed to persuade the king to allow him to plant 100 acres of potatoes just outside of Paris, to be guarded by Louis’ own troops. The story goes that the people, witnessing royal troops guarding something, became immediately curious as to what it was, assuming that it must be valuable. So they watched, and they waited, until one night, Parmentier purposely dismissed the guards, hoping that, under the cover of darkness, the local landowners would make an effort to swipe some of the crop to plant on their own land, having taken their cue from royalty and embracing the potato as a result of psychological manipulation. It worked. Additionally, some sources claim that at the same time, Louis XVI’s queen, Marie Antoinette, had been seen in public on numerous occasions with potato flowers in her hair. Social pressure would have forced female members of the aristocracy to emulate her, hence painting the potato itself, although indirectly, in a new and positive light.
It seems, then, that by the late 1770s, the French were beginning to embrace the potato with a whole heart, thinking of ways to transform it from its humble natural state into succulent dishes. Parmentier was busy organizing lavish dinners in which the potato was celebrated in every course, as a way to spread its use throughout the French elite. And while he is widely credited with starting the potato frenzy in Europe, a more logical truth is that its popularity was inevitable. It is clear that Europeans had been slowly warming up to the idea of eating potatoes for quite some time. (There are accounts of potato consumption in Spain, Italy, and Belgium throughout the 1600s). What is also clear is that Parmentier had an ulterior motive for popularizing the potato. He spent a great deal of time and effort promoting the use of potato flour to make bread. This was because, in 1775, Louis XVI removed price controls on grains, allowing the cost of bread to surge, which thereby provoked more than 300 protests, now referred to as the Flour War. Parmentier was determined to eliminate famine, and insisted that potato flour bread would do this, as it was so much cheaper to produce than bread made of wheat flour. Looking back, the fact is, widespread famine in Europe was indeed eradicated by the end of the 18th century. The potato was the first crop that had ever managed to achieve this, effectively changing Europe’s future. Soon after Europeans began to cultivate it, the amount of available food doubled, and as a result, the populations of European countries rose exponentially.
The French in all their culinary glory began creating a vast array of potato dishes, some of them named for the potato hero himself, Parmentier. Probably the most famous of those was Hachis Parmentier.
This example of French comfort food is perhaps unequaled. It starts with a casserole dish lined with mashed potatoes. On top of that layer goes a layer of either tender stewed beef or cooked ground beef, followed by another layer of mashed potatoes, cheese and bread crumbs, under the broiler until golden brown. This is the dish that inspired the British shepherd’s pie, which they originally made with ground lamb or mutton, omitting the cheese and adding Worcestershire sauce. Shepherd’s pie would eventually make its way to the United States and become a staple dish in so many households.
But what about conceivably the greatest crowd-pleasing potato dish of all? Is it roasted potatoes, or boiled potatoes, or baked potatoes? No. It is, of course, the French fry. Who invented it? Was it even French? For years the Belgians have been insisting that the French fry was never French at all, but invented in southern Belgium. The Belgians living along the River Meuse had always fried the small fish they pulled from their river. However, going back centuries, during the harshest of winters, the river froze, leaving the local folks with no fish to fry. Thankfully, they had potatoes, and fried them in place of the usual fish, thus giving birth to the French fry. It is said that the name itself was given to these fried potatoes by American soldiers stationed in Belgium during World War I. They were in contact with the Belgian army, whose official language was French, which explains why the Americans would have thought the fried potatoes to be French. This story, while entertaining, does seem a bit suspect. The River Meuse crosses the border between France and Belgium on its journey out to the North Sea and would have frozen on the French side of the border as well as the Belgian side, leaving village dwellers on both sides without fish in the winter.
Can the Belgians prove that their French neighbors, just kilometers away, were not frying potatoes at the same time they were? The fact is, the argument of the origin of the French fry may really be an argument over semantics rather than over the fry itself. Who is to say, for example, that the Spaniards were not frying potatoes in olive oil decades before the Belgians began frying them? After all, the Spanish had adopted the use of the olive thousands of years before the potato arrived there, using its oil for everything from cooking to skin care, even lighting their cities at night with olive oil filled lamps. So while the Belgians cannot truthfully claim the invention of the fried potato, they persist in their claim to the French fry and even have a museum dedicated to it.
Regardless of their origin, French fries, now commonly just called fries, are the number one potato product consumed around the world. As a processed food, they account for more than seven million metric tons of transported product per year. The United States could claim 62% of the global market share in French fry exports in 2002. Recent years have seen that percentage decrease dramatically, to just 38% in 2016. It is not due to the notion that people all over the world are eating fewer fries, but rather to the fact that more countries are cultivating the potato than ever before, flooding the global market with more sellers. North Americans are eating more fries than ever, consuming more than eleven billion pounds of fries in 2017.
Is there any denial, then, of the power of the potato?
History-magazine.com. The Impact of the Potato
Vegetablefacts.net. History of Potatoes
Smithsonianmag.com How the Potato Changed the World
Potatocountry.com Market Report- Growing Pains for the French Fry Industry
Michelle Bakeman has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Latin American Studies. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. She has been a chef for twenty-two years, has owned and operated several restaurants, and has been a teacher for sixteen years. She moved to Cuenca in 2013.