December 3, 1586 A Food Fit for Peasants, and Livestock

Among other virtues, the potato provides more caloric energy per acre of cultivation than either maize or grain and, being below ground, is likely to survive calamities that would flatten other crops. Taters quickly became staple foods in northern and eastern Europe, while in other areas remaining the food of peasants and livestock.

In time of plenty, it is an act of conscious will to imagine the process of starvation. Not the hunger of the mind nor even the body but that sustained state of deprivation which brings with it, the slow and agonizing end of life.

The first phase. The body turns inward converting glycogen stored in the liver, into fuel. Glucose. The process lasts only a few hours and then comes the breakdown of fats, and proteins.

The second phase can last for weeks as the liver metabolizes fatty acids into ketone bodies, used for energy. Proteins not essential for survival, are consumed.

These first two phases take place, even during moderate periods of dieting and fasting. The third phase begins only after prolonged periods of starvation. The body’s fat reserves are now depleted. Muscle tissue is consumed, for fuel. Cell function degenerates as the sufferer becomes withdrawn, listless, increasingly vulnerable to disease and infection. Some experience distended liver and massive edema seen particularly in children…the swollen belly, the cruel and superficial illusion that such youngsters are in fact, well fed. Few die directly from starvation but rather collapse of organ function or cardiac arrhythmia brought about by severe imbalance. Or opportunistic infection, afflicting a body no longer able to defend itself.

The process is over in as little as three weeks or as long as seventy days.

“Marasmus, a form of protein-energy malnutrition occurring chiefly among very young children in developing countries, particularly under famine conditions, in which a mother’s milk supply is greatly reduced. Marasmus results from the inadequate intake of both protein and calories; persons with a similar type of protein-energy malnutrition, kwashiorkor, do not obtain enough protein but still consume a moderate number of calories”. H/T Britannica

Massive hunger events are as old as recorded history, when our early ancestors first abandoned hunter-gatherer lifestyles to build agricultural settlements. Scientists believe the 100-year drought beginning in 2200BC may well have collapsed the old order from Egypt to the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley and the Indian sub-continent. Evidence of an intense and sustained period of aridity may be found from Andean glacier ice to Italian cave flowstone to the Kilimanjaro ice sheet.

The final collapse of the Roman Empire in Italy brought about by the sack of Rome in 476, led to a sustained period of plague and famine. The population of Rome itself fell by some 90 percent.

The next 800 years saw no fewer than 40 worldwide starvation events. The Great Famine of 1315-’17 killed 7.5 million in Europe alone, at a time when worldwide population is estimated, at 450 million.

Enter, the lowly spud.

The Inca of Peru appear to have been the first to cultivate potatoes, around 8,000BC.

Wild potatoes contain toxins to defend themselves against fungi and bacteria, toxins unaffected by the heat of cooking.  In the Andes, mountain people learned to imitate the wild guanaco and vicuña, licking clay before eating the poisonous plants. In this manner, toxins pass harmlessly through the digestive tract. Mountain people dunk wild potatoes in “gravy” made of clay and water, accompanied with coarse salt. Eventually, growers developed less toxic tubers, though the poisonous varieties are still favored for their frost resistance.  Clay dust is sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets, to this day.

Spanish Conquistadors arriving in Peru in 1532 eventually brought potatoes home to Spain.  The first written mention of the tuber comes from a delivery receipt dated November 28, 1567, between the Grand Canaries and Antwerp.

The English expedition destined to end in the Lost Colony of Roanoke began in 1585, financed by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane. On board was the Oxford trained mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Herriot who returned to the British Isles this day in 1586, with Columbian potatoes.

Among other virtues, the potato provides more caloric energy per acre of cultivation than either maize or grain and, being below ground, is likely to survive calamities that would flatten other crops.  Taters quickly became staple foods in northern and eastern Europe, while in other areas remaining the food of peasants and livestock.

French army pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussians during the seven years war, learning in captivity to appreciate the gustatorial delights of the potato.  Primarily used as hog feed in his native country, Parmentier was determined to bring respectability to the lowly tuber.  It must have been a tough sell. Many believed that potatoes caused leprosy. 

The Paris Faculty of Medicine declared potatoes edible in 1772, thanks largely to Parmentier’s efforts.  He would host dinners featuring multiple potato dishes, inviting such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  Franklin was enormously popular among the French nobility.  Before long King Louis XVI himself, was wearing the purple potato flower in his lapel.  Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair.

Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589.  The crop occupied one third of arable land in Ireland within two generations, due to landless laborers renting tiny plots from landowners interested only in raising cattle or producing grain for market. An acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow was enough to sustain a family.  Even poor families could grow enough surplus to feed a pig which could then be sold, for cash.

Calamity struck in 1845 in the form of a blight so horrific, that US military authorities once considered stockpiling the stuff as a biological weapon.  Seemingly overnight, Ireland’s staple food crop, tragically based on but a single strain, collapsed into a black, stinking ooze.  The seven years’ “an Gorta Mór”, “the Great Hunger”, killed over a million Irish and reduced the population by 20-25% through death and emigration. 

Today, many see the effects of the absentee landlord system and the penal codes as a form of genocide.  At the time, already strained relations with England were broken, giving rise to Irish republicanism and leading to Irish independence in the following century.

Dublin Memorial remembers the Irish potato famine of 1845

Until Nazis tore the thing down, there was a statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, Germany, giving him credit for introducing the potato. The explorer’s right hand rested on the hilt of his sword, his left gripping a potato plant. The inscription read “Sir Francis Drake, disseminator of the potato in Europe in the Year of Our Lord 1586. Millions of people who cultivate the earth bless his immortal memory”.

Not until the “Green Revolution” of Norman Borlaug, could cereal grains even compete. Today, potatoes are the 5th largest crop on the planet following rice, wheat, maize and sugar cane.  Almost 5,000 varieties are preserved in the International Potato Center, in Peru.

Scientists have created genetically modified potatoes to ward off pests.  The “New Leaf”, approved in 1995, incorporated a bacterial gene rendering the plant resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, an “international superpest” so voracious that some give the critter credit for creating the modern pesticide industry. 

Other varieties were genetically modified to resist phytophthora infestans, the cause of the Irish potato famine.  Seeming to prefer insecticides and anti-fungal sprays, “food activists” decry such varieties as “Frankenfoods”.  Each time, the improved variety has been hounded out of business.

In 2014, the J.R. Simplot Company received approval for their “Innate” potato.  Rather than “transgenic” gene splicing, the introduction of genome sequences from unrelated species, the innate variety uses a “silencing” technique on the tuber’s own genes, to resist the bruising and browning that results in 400 million pounds of waste and a cost to consumers of $90 million.

The Innate potato produces less acrylamide, a known carcinogen produced by normal potatoes in the high heat of fryers.  Approved for human consumption in 2015, the Innate might actually be the first genetically modified variety to succeed in the marketplace. McDonald’s, possibly the largest potato user on the planet, announced that “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.”

In October 2018, the “Non-GMO Project” classified the J.R. Simplot product as “High-Risk”. You can never underestimate the power of hysterical people in large groups.

Fun fact: Some of the “asteroids” filmed in Star Wars Episode V The Empire Strikes Back were, in fact, potatoes.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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