Potato Lore

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Potatoes got their start in South America, where their ability to grow at high altitude guaranteed their popularity. The indigenous people of the Andes have been cultivating potatoes for at least 4,000 years, and maybe as long as 7,000 years.

Monoculture = bad

Britannica.com calls potatoes a “hardy, nutritious, and calorie-dense crop and relatively easy to grow in the Irish soil.” By the 1840s, half of Ireland’s people — mostly the poor, of course — were dependent on spuds to live at all.

When a disease attacked the potatoes, a million people died, give or take, from starvation or communicable diseases that hitchhike along on a famine. Somewhere between one and two million people emigrated, and the vast majority of them came to the USA. That one food, and its deadly absence in Ireland, had influenced America immeasurably.

Eighty years ago, George Orwell (famous for Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm) embarked on what David Sharrock called “a classic literary journey.” Orwell set out to investigate the slums and rural poverty pockets of northern England, where the potato was one of the dietary staples, along with white bread, margarine, corned beef, and sugared tea.

Apparently, this nutritionally horrifying diet was not fully a matter of economic stress, but partly a preference. Orwell wrote:

The English palate, especially the working-class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically. The number of people who prefer tinned peas and tinned fish to real peas and real fish must be increasing every year.

The only thing on that Big Five list with healthful potential is the potato — a vegetable that has its defenders. The United Nations has recommended it as a potential cure for world hunger, although not everyone is willing to go that far. Although the potato’s claim to be the perfect food is neither verified nor refuted here, potato lore is interesting.

Take away the extra fat

The George Mateljan Foundation has a food ranking system that rates potatoes as…

[…] a very good source of vitamin B6 and a good source of potassium, copper, vitamin C, manganese, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fiber, and pantothenic acid. Potatoes also contain a variety of phytonutrients that have antioxidant activity… [T]ake away the extra fat and deep frying, and a baked potato is an exceptionally healthful low calorie, high fiber food that offers significant protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer.

An impressive resume.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Potatoes,” WHFoods.com, undated
Source: “Great Famine,” Britannica.com, undated
Source: “The road to Wigan Pier, 75 years on,” TheGuardian.com, 02/19/11
Source: “Man Eating Nothing But Potatoes for 2 Months,” LiveScience.com, 10/20/10
Photo via Visualhunt

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