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The foods of the Americas: The potato changes the world and returns home

Editor’s note: This is the third 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 Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Part 2 traced the journey of the potato to Europe, where in 1771 French scientist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier discovered the nutritional genius of potatoes and helped eradicate famines that had limited population and cultural growth.

Today we learn how different cultures incorporated the potato into their cuisine, and how the potato famine changed the politics of Ireland and England and the resulting impact on North American history. We continue the culinary journey east through Italy, Germany, Russia and as far as Asia… and we return to Peru for more history and a great recipe.

By Michelle Bakeman

It would be impossible, of course, to have any serious potato discussion without paying homage to the Irish.

Why is it that the Irish have become synonymous with the

potato, and why not the British? Is it because the Irish have always been potato enthusiasts? The answer to that is complicated. While it is true that the potato was once the lifeline of the Irish, it was not because they necessarily fell in love with it or were exceptionally excited about its flavor and culinary possibilities. Let us pull back for a moment to embrace a larger view of world history. Food has always been inextricably tied to human advancement and mobility.

Michelle Bakeman

In the ancient world, food acted as a tribute to be paid to ruling

classes. In many cultures, power and wealth were often gauged by the quantity and quality of what the elite in society had to eat themselves and to offer during celebrations. Egyptian farmers paid tribute to local landowners who in turn paid tribute to the pharaohs. Part of that tribute functioned as a tax to support the empire, thus allowing for its success and longevity. This was not at all an uncommon practice in societies around the world. In Europe, there existed a feudal system, whereby serfs worked a lord’s land and only a percentage of the harvest was to be set aside for the consumption of the serfs’ families. The rest was sent along as payment to the lord for use of his land. Hunting rights were owned by nobles alone, and anyone hunting on a noble’s land without permission was severely punished. This was essentially a caste system in which everything revolved around land ownership as the primary measure of status, as it was land that provided wealth in an agricultural world.

We know that the potato was not well-received upon its arrival in England. In addition to its reputation for causing disease, the potato was viewed by the pious in England as evil, as it came from underground, which was considered to be Satan’s domain. Ireland had always been subservient to England throughout European history. The English, for their prejudices, allowed the potato to pass through their land to their Irish colony and encouraged its cultivation there as a sort of experiment to see if the crop was suitable for human consumption.

The Great Irish Famine of 1845-49

By the 1700s, the Irish, while cultivating wheat in their fields to export to England, as the English preferred to continue their reliance on wheat products, had realized the benefits of cultivating the potato instead to feed themselves. The potato yield was so much greater than that of wheat, and the nutrients of the potato were so vast that, as a result, the Irish began to develop a dependency upon it that was never before seen in any other European nation. The farming advancements of the 1700s, including the enrichment of soils, better crop rotation techniques, and improvements in and mass production of farming equipment all contributed to greater food supplies upon the advent of the Industrial Revolution. In England, there was an influx of city-dwellers as employment opportunities began to rise. It was soon the factory workers’ needs that took precedence over that of the farmers’ in England, and Ireland was expected to supply those workers with grain. And they did, all the while consuming more and more potatoes out of necessity and convenience, so much so that by the 1840s, more than half of the Irish population, which had reached almost eight million from about four million just one hundred years prior, was eating almost exclusively potatoes. As well, there were only two varieties of potatoes that were being cultivated in most areas, leaving the Irish vulnerable in the event that the crops became contaminated.  The scene was set for catastrophe, and it was catastrophe that came.

Its name was Phytophthora infestans, which translates as “plant destroyer with decay,” a water mold that moves through the wind in the form of spores that in just a few days visibly affects a potato plant with purplish brown or purplish black splotches on the tips of the leaves and on the stems, and often by the time the resulting spotted leaves are noticed, the plant cannot be saved, as the spores have had time to infect the soil surrounding the plant and the tuber itself. Known widely as “late blight,” P. infestans attacks members of the nightshade family, principally potatoes and tomatoes.

Ironically, the mold came to Europe from the New World. Some scientists claim that it originated in central Mexico, while others say Peru, but regardless of its origin, in 1845, the mold hit fast, and it hit hard. The potato blight was first noticed in the Belgian town of Kortrijk, close to the French border in early summer. By August it had made its way to Paris, and in just a few weeks was attacking potato plants in England, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In Ireland, P. infestans destroyed between one quarter and one-third of the potato crop, which is estimated to have been roughly two million acres worth of planted potatoes.

Sadly, what happened in 1845 was not the real tragedy. How could the Irish have known that any volunteer plants springing up the following year that was the result of infected potatoes left underground would spread the pathogen all over again? And so the losses in 1846 were even greater and continued year after year until 1852. In the end, more than one million Irish had died of starvation and hunger-related diseases. After ten years, roughly two million people had fled, most of them to the United States.

Diplomatically stated, the efforts of the British government to help alleviate the famine lacked efficacy. As the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Britain, and the English demand for Irish grains and beef was not to be interrupted, Irish imports simply continued despite the emergency. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Pell took the initiative to allow the importation of corn from the United States at the close of 1845 in an effort to avert starvation, but by mid 1846, after Pell’s resignation, the English attitude toward the famine shifted, and the government decided that aid for the Irish should come from the Irish landowners. To thank for this philosophy, we turn to Englishman Charles Edward Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury, who was charged with heading the famine relief policy from 1845-1847. He was of the opinion that there was a real danger in allowing the Irish to become “habitually dependent” upon the British government for survival. Therefore, the British were committed to providing assistance in the form of loans, employment for the Irish on public works, and funding for some soup kitchens. By the middle of 1847, millions of Irish were relying on the rations provided by the soup kitchens, all the while continuing to supply England with grains and meats that they, themselves had no hope of purchasing, condemned instead to a diet of cornmeal that only served to further their malnutrition, as corn alone cannot sustain human life.

Eventually, Irish resentment toward the English began to grow, as some members of the English elite and intellectual communities professed that the famine was simply a natural and even warranted correction to the excessive Irish population boom that had occurred during the previous hundred years. Even so, today it is generally accepted that is was not malice on the part of the English that allowed for so much Irish suffering but rather neglect, the end result being that the Irish population has not to date recovered from this disaster, totaling in 2018 at just under five million people, making Ireland the only European nation to have fewer inhabitants now within the same borders than it did in the 1840s.

In what way, then, did the Irish contribute to the culinary stardom of the potato?   In the years that followed the famine and the mass exodus, what had devolved at least for a time into a sort of love/hate relationship with the potato resurfaced as one of only love, as potato cultivation made a comeback. But unlike many of the French potato dishes that were originally promoted among the wealthy, the vast majority of Irish potato dishes came from the peasant population, and today they are considered to be Irish comfort food at its best.

Colcannon Potatoes Recipe: photo by Taste of Home

Probably the most famous of these is called Colcannon, a very specific name for what are essentially mashed potatoes, but with style.  Colcannon mashed potatoes are combined with sautéed cabbage or kale, leeks, butter, and garlic, ingredients that could have been found in any Irish kitchen, which makes this dish a classic.

So what about the rest of Europe? How was the potato affecting the cuisines of the other nations? We know about the most famous Spanish potato dish, the tortilla española, but did the potato make a significant impact on Italian or German cuisine? As mentioned before, King Frederick the Great introduced the potato to the Germans when Germany was part of Prussia, so it is no accident that today, Germans love their potatoes, prepared countless ways: boiled, roasted, mashed, in potato salads, and yes, as dumplings.   The dumpling brings us to a new world of potato preparation. Something quite magical happened with regard to this tuber as it embarked on its journey from Western to Eastern Europe. The potato fit into the cuisines of England and Ireland, France, Portugal, and Spain, the cooks there preparing it in the ways in which they had prepared other foods, but as the potato moved east, the culinary techniques it was to encounter were different and had the influence of the cultures of the Middle and the Far East.

Chinese pork dumplings from Spark Recipes

Enter, then, the dumpling, pasta’s beloved cousin. It is probable that the noodle made its way across Asia toward the west at some point, though most accounts that it was brought to Italy by Marco Polo from China have been dismissed. The dumpling, it seems, was already in widespread production more than a thousand years ago during the Tang Dynasty in China. Ponder for a moment the beauty of it in all its tender, steamy glory, concealing inside its humble outer walls a savory or sweet surprise.

By the time the potato reached Italy, Italians were busy in their kitchens kneading pasta dough, forming it into a myriad of shapes and sizes, stuffing it with meats and cheeses and covering it with zesty sauces. How did they factor in the potato with their pasta obsession? Italians were already making ravioli and tortellini, which are, in fact, dumplings in their own right although not commonly associated with Asian dumplings per se. A medieval legend tells the story that Venus, the goddess of love, graced an innkeeper with her presence for a night’s stay in the province of Modena. The innkeeper, already desperately in love with her, stole a glimpse of her nakedness through the keyhole of her room. Filled with inspiration, he then went down to his kitchen and invented the tortellini in the image of her navel.   The truth about the first tortellini is not known, but there is proof that ravioli was being made as far back as the 14th century of durum wheat. Upon the arrival of a new starchy substance (the potato) centuries later, Italians contemplated the best way to use it. Well, it was simple; they made gnocchi, their famous potato dumpling which like pasta, is cooked in boiling, salted water.

Potato gnocchi: photo from Italian Food Forever

Gnocchi was originally popular in Northern Italian cuisine, as the climate of Northern Italy is well-suited to the cultivation of potatoes as it is cooler than that of the land bordering the Mediterranean.  And while the Italians were fixated on gnocchi preparation, other Europeans, especially those in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, like Poland, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, and the Czech Republic, were making their own versions of potato dumplings and also potato pancakes.

As we continue our journey east, we inevitably encounter Russia. And, oh, the love affair that exists between Russians and potatoes is perhaps unmatched. There are those who claim that it would be a challenge to find a Russian dish that did not include the potato. It does make sense, given Russia’s geography and location on the world map. The potato could not have found a more comfortable home. It is said that Russians consume close to 500 pounds of potatoes per person per year. And while Americans have idiomatic expressions that associate the potato with laziness, like the term “couch potato,” or with heaviness, to be like a “sack of potatoes,” for Russians the connotation of the word is the opposite. This is due to the potato’s resilience as a crop. So many other plants cannot thrive in Russia and the fact that the potato can, has earned it admiration in the eyes of Russians, who pride themselves on the value of sturdiness.   The result is that today the potato in Russian cuisine is a supreme ingredient. It has made its way into salads, soups, and stews, and it rules the realm of pastry dough fillings.

So prominent in everyday life is the potato, that Russians have a saying about the rarity of love in comparison to the abundance of this tuber. It goes like this: “Love is not a potato; you can’t just throw it out the window.” I suppose that means that if there is anything at all to be found in a Russian kitchen, it will be so many potatoes that one could always easily be spared.

During the three centuries that the potato was traveling the world, working hard to change the way people everywhere ate, its use as a foodstuff in its native Peru was also undergoing a metamorphosis, as Peru, much more than some of its neighboring countries, was becoming a culinary bastion of fusion. It is not as if the Spanish moved in after conquering the Inca and simply forced their Old World cuisine on the peoples of the New.   Within just one hundred years after conquest, the indigenous population decreased from roughly nine million to five million people. The Spanish looked to Africa to replace the enslaved native peoples as they began to disappear, having succumbed to disease and torture. Most of the imported African slaves were put to work on coastal plantations in Peru, which produced sugar cane and cotton. Almost immediately, a melding of cuisines began. The indigenous blended their local ingredients with those brought by the Spaniards and the West Africans to make kitchen magic, which was enhanced once again after 1854, which was the year that Peru emancipated its African slaves. After that year, in an effort to replace much-needed laborers the nation looked to Asia. More than 100,000 Chinese indentured workers arrived in Peru between the years 1849 and 1874. They built the Peruvian railroad, they worked on plantations, and they suffered greatly. And from them modern-day Peruvian cuisine gained its final component, making it a one-of-a-kind mix of indigenous, European, African, and Asian foods. The base of most Peruvian dishes then is either potatoes, corn, or rice with chili peppers, enhanced with ginger and soy sauce, often prepared in woks, made into kebabs, and topped with silky, spicy sauces.

Today’s Peruvian chefs are some of the most creative in the world, hard at work inventing dishes such as carapulcra chinchana, which is a potato stew made with chilies, peanut butter, and beef broth and papas a la huancaína, a dish rooted in tradition, featuring boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs over lettuce, topped with a smooth, cheesy sauce made with onions, garlic, and hot yellow chilies native to Peru. And Asian influences can be found in a dish called lomo saltado, which consists of fried potatoes with beef, tomatoes, and rice, seasoned with soy sauce and parsley, the marriage of four cultures on a plate.

Causa rellena de pollo: photo from Deliciosi

Finally, we have causa rellena, made in too many variations to count, but which entails fillings of chicken, crab, tuna, or smoked trout salads with avocado and mayonnaise nestled inside two layers of boiled, mashed potatoes and topped with sauces spiced with Peruvian chilies. This dish has the look and sophistication of high French cuisine and the succulent flavors of the Old and New Worlds combined, five hundred years of human history in one bite; that is the Peruvian cuisine of today. And that is the potato today, there to stay in every kitchen in every country in the world, including Ecuador.

Llapingachos

Speaking of potatoes, I’m hungry.   It’s time for some llapingachos. I’ll walk the three blocks toward the beautiful blue domes of Cuenca’s cathedral to Doña Carolina’s tiny kitchen set in an adobe doorway, where I’ll ask for her sancocho platter. It comes with pork, mote (puffed soft white corn kernels) and of course, what I really want, llapingachos, which are little round potato puffs, mixed with queso fresco (local fresh cheese) and sautéed golden. She will top them with chopped tomatoes and onions, and when I eat them, they will melt on my tongue, and I will remember to be grateful, not just to Doña Carolina, but to the genius of those who gifted me the almighty, tender, resilient, and life-sustaining potato. Tomorrow I am off to shop at the indigenous market, and you can be sure, I won’t forget the potatoes.

The following is my recipe for crashed potatoes, a concept introduced to me by my beloved friend, Lee Patrick. Thanks, Lee.

Crashed Potatoes (serves 4-6 people)

2 pounds of starchy potatoes (Papa Chola is a good choice)
Olive Oil
*Your favorite spices

Scrub the outside of the potatoes under cool, running water, leaving the skins on. Cut the potatoes into pieces about two inches in size. Place the potatoes into a pot of cold water (it is important to start with cold water to avoid the potatoes becoming gluey in texture). Place the pot on the stove and bring the water to a boil. Boil the potatoes for about ten minutes or so, until the pieces are fork tender but not falling apart. Drain the potatoes, and then transfer them onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or anything to keep them from sticking. Pre-heat your oven to 220 Celsius (about 425 Fahrenheit). Using a potato masher or a fork, give the potatoes a squish. Be careful not to break them up completely, as we are not making mashed potatoes. You simply want to sort of flatten them a bit. Drizzle olive oil or your favorite cooking oil generously over the potatoes. *Now the fun begins. Your potatoes are a blank canvas to your imagination. Grab your favorite combination of spices from your cabinet. I like to use smoky paprika, ground coriander, ground garlic, salt, and crushed red chilies. I sprinkle them over the potatoes and into the oven they go, for at least 25 minutes. The longer they bake, the crispier they get, becoming golden on the outside, and staying creamy on the inside. You can turn them into Italian crashed potatoes, using a blend of dried oregano, basil, fennel seed, marjoram, garlic, salt, and black pepper, if you desire, or make them Mexican, with dried cumin, chili powder, oregano, garlic, salt, and just a hint of cinnamon for warmth. The possibilities are endless. If you are lucky enough to have some already mixed spice blends, such as a good steak seasoning, for example, you will have phenomenal crashed potatoes. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and eat as many as you like. They are much tastier than your average French fry, and they are a healthful alternative. Enjoy!

Sources:
Britannica.com Great Famine
History-magazine.com. The Impact of the Potato
Smithsonianmag.com How the Potato Changed the World
Vegetablefacts.net. History of Potatoes

Food in History by Reah Tannahill, Three Rivers Press, 1988.


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.