THE ANDEAN MOUNTAINS OF SOUTH AMERICA IS THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE "IRISH" WHITE POTATO THAT WE EAT TODAY.
The Aymara Indians developed over two hundred varieties on the Titicaca Plateau at elevations above 10,000 feet. They were the innovators of the freeze-dried potato, or chuño. Inge Schjellerup, in The Cultivated Wild One, describes how chuño is made.
“Chuño” is still produced as it was at the time of the Incas. The potatoes are spread on the ground on frosty nights. During the day they are covered with straw to protect against the burning rays of the sun. This way the potatoes go completely white. After exposure to several nights of frost, women and children trample on the potatoes to get rid of moisture and wear away the peel. The potatoes are then put in a stream with running water for a few weeks in order to wash out the bitter taste. Finally they're dried for about 14 days and can be stored without problems for up to 4 years."
The influence of potatoes permeated the Incan culture. Potato-shaped pottery complete with eyes are commonly found at excavated sites, sometimes with tiny heads growing out of the little eyes. Incan units of time correlated to how long it took for a potato to cook to various consistencies. Potatoes were even used to divine the truth and predict weather.
A Brief History of the Potato – Early
Potatoes have been one of mankind's most important food staples for the past millennium. First cultivated in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia they formed the basis of the Inca diet.
The Spanish Conquistador Pedro Cieza de Leon in his journal “Chronicle of Peru” wrote the first recorded information about potatoes in 1553. The Conquistadors didn't find the gold and silver they were looking for but quickly cornered the local potato market. Potatoes were soon a standard supply item on the Spanish ships; they noticed that the sailors who ate papas (potatoes) did not suffer from scurvy.
No one knows exactly when potatoes were first planted in European soil but, in 1573, records of a Spanish hospital in Seville show that sacks of potatoes were ordered for provisions. The potato was somewhat slow to catch on, in part because people realized that it was a member of the nightshade family, all of which are very poisonous.
At about the same time, some historians have written that Sir Francis Drake brought back some potatoes from a trip to the West Indies. If so, these were probably part of the stores of a Spanish ship he had fought with. The potatoes were given to Sir Walter Raleigh, and were cultivated at both his estates in Ireland and, later on, Virginia.
Potato cultivation spread to the Low Countries and Switzerland. With its introduction to Germany in the 1620's, the nutritional properties of the potato were finally acknowledged. Frederick the Great, the Prussian ruler, ordered his people to plant and eat them as a deterrent to famine, a common and recurrent problem of that period. The people's fear of poisoning led him to enforce his orders by threatening to cut off the nose and ears of those who refused. Not surprisingly, this was effective and by the time of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), potatoes were a basic part of the Prussian diet.
A similar story occurred in France. A young French agriculturist and chemist, Antoine Augustin Parmentier, made it his mission to popularize the potato after his experience as prisoner of war in Prussia. With some clever marketing to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and subtle scheming to convert the thinking of the populace, Parmentier achieved his goals. Potato dishes were created in great variety and the potato became a delicacy enjoyed by the nobility. The French populace soon coveted potatoes for themselves.
The potato quickly took the place of other crops as a food staple because it was a more reliable crop than wheat, which suffered as a food crop when the damp climates of Europe prevented proper ripening. Potatoes furthered both an agrarian revolution already underway in the early 17th century and a population increase in Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries. As a result, more and more farmers were drawn from subsistence farming into profit-driven economies. The agrarian revolution, stimulated by the potato, was an integral stimulus to the Industrial Revolution
European immigrants introduced potatoes to North America several times throughout the 1600s, but they were not widely grown for almost a century. Not until 1719, when Irish immigrants brought the potato to Londonderry, New Hampshire, were potatoes grown on a large scale. Again, potatoes were slow to gain popularity. Even when they became the second largest food crop in America, they were still used primarily as animal fodder.
Famine in Ireland
Ironically, the dependable potato, which had saved so many lives and helped to further significant population increases throughout Europe, was responsible for one of the most horrifying famines of the last 200 years. Introduced into Ireland in the mid-1700, the potato proved to be an ideal crop for its environment. Though the island gets an average 60 inches of precipitation each year, it is mostly in the form of soft mist showers which both keeps the air cool and the soil moist.
By the 1800s, Irish peasants were eating a daily average of 10 potatoes per person. The potatoes supplied about 80% of the calories in their diet. The peasants used potato fodder to feed their animals, animals which provided milk, meat and eggs to supplement the peasants' diet. This dependence on one food crop was dangerous, but no other crop had ever proved to be as reliable.
In the 1840s, disaster struck. Three successive years of late blight (the microscopic fungus Phytophthora infestans) and heavy rains rotted the potato crops in the ground. Without potatoes, both the peasants and animals went hungry. And when the animals died for lack of food; milk, meat and eggs were no longer available. More than one million of Ireland's 8 million inhabitants died of starvation; almost 2 million emigrated. The population of Ireland was reduced by almost one-fourth (and has never regained its former numbers to this day).
We know now that genetic diversity might have mitigated this disaster but this was not recognized at the time. Late blight and famine were not isolated to Ireland; the European continent was subjected to the same wet and cold weather, and had the same poor crops. The new field of plant pathology was stimulated by these disasters. The German botanist Heinrich Anton de Bary published his findings on the complete life cycle of Phytophthora infestans in 1861. This was one of the first times that a fungus was identified as the cause of a plant disease. During the same period, people discovered several ways to control the disease, using lime in combination with either sulfur or copper sulfate (a Bordeaux mixture).
Today, scientists are constantly developing and studying new and different varieties to prevent a disaster like this from happening again, especially in Third World countries where the potato is, or could be, an important staple.
In the 1950’s, potato consumption began to drop in the United States. It had risen steadily for over one hundred years but began to drop off with the advent of convenience foods and the mistaken idea that potatoes were fattening. Then food researchers began to develop various kinds of processed potatoes. Techniques such as dehydrofreezing (freeze-drying), explosion puffing, and using infrared light to create a kind of seal on the tissue of the potato were developed. By the late 1950s, consumption was on the rise again.