This is the second part in a series that examines the different ways new foods become naturalized parts of our diets. For part one, click here.
Potatoes are an evil, unchristian tuber, a food so disgusting that even dogs refuse to eat it. Or, if you’re European, that’s what you might still think, if not for the aristocracy’s work to popularize the potato in the 1700s. Though we associate the celebrity endorsement with vapid talk shows and magazine spreads, in reality it’s been around for centuries, and it’s played a far more serious role than we give it credit for.
For better or worse, celebrity endorsements tap directly into our well of social instinct: We’re always willing to do what the cool kids are doing. In the case of food, there’s always a star to promote the newest miracle diet, or a celebrity chef to push an obscure ingredient into the mainstream. In the case of the potato, “celebrities” weren’t looking for endorsement revenue, but an end to famine.
In the 18th century, as it had been throughout history, Europe was plagued with crop failure and warfare, all of which contributed to periodic, massive famine. Experts recognized a possible solution in the potato, which was then a novel South American import. Potatoes are a fantastic hedge against food scarcity. Compared to wheat, potatoes are more nutritious, grow faster, thrive in marginal lands, and can be stored longer. Conveniently enough, they grow underground – out of the reach of marauding armies. Yet the potato is ugly and tastes horrible in its raw state. It’s heathen credential were sealed by the fact that it’s mentioned nowhere in the Bible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, scientists and government officials were ignored when they plead with farmers to cultivate the devil’s tuber.
Yet where experts fail, celebrity succeeds. In France, Marie Antoinette took to putting potato blossoms in her hair, while Louis XVI wore them in his buttonhole. With a high-fashion seal of approval, the rural citizenry was finally persuaded to adopt the versatile pomme de terre. Frederick the Great of Prussia planted a potato garden and placed it under heavy guard, rightfully assuming that local peasants would steal any crop valuable enough to warrant protection. And, in the US, Thomas Jefferson served potatoes as part of lavish dinners, helping to cement its position as a staple of American cuisine.
Potato story via History Magazine.