Thirteen ways of looking at a Potato

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I

In La Paz, you will probably come across a dish of something resembling discoloured styrofoam, even if you don’t order it. This is chuno, an indigenous staple in Bolivia and Peru since ancient times. The process involves leaving potatoes to freeze in the cold high-altitude temperatures overnight, then dried out during the warm days. Chuno can keep for several years without going bad.

II

Potatoes grow not from seeds, but from chunks of a previous potato, making identical clones rather than different offspring. For 250 years, all potatoes in Europe were derived from a small number of specimens brought by Spanish colonists in the late 16th century.

III 

In the hair of Marie and buttonhole of Louis / Potato flowers are full of blossom, colour and beauty / Though their heads do droop quite soon

IV

Most potatoes grown in the Andes are varieties introduced from the U.S.A., taken there from Europe from the 19th century, grown in Europe from cross breeds of specimens brought initially from the Andes.

V

In 1995 the potato was successfully grown by astronauts in space. In 2015, NASA and the International Potato Center started a joint project to grow potatoes in an environment identical to that of Mars.

VI

Before potatoes arrived in Europe, famine was commonplace. Adam Smith wrote that an acre of potatoes could produce three times the food nutrient value of an acre of wheat. Superstitions and stigmas against the potato were gradually overcome by the fact that it kept people alive.

VII

As an emblem of the poor but honest, the depraved but hardy, as Van Gogh’s ‘Potato Eaters’ and Millett’s ‘Potato Planters’.

VIII

No, I do have a weakness – I wish McDonald’s fries were vegan.

Aren’t they just potatoes?

Potato is one ingredient. So is beef flavouring, plus about a dozen other ingredients, depending which country.

IX

There is a growing network of cycle lanes stretching down Manhattan’s Hudson banks. Just before the World Trade Center and Battery Park you may see from this path a striking, modernist pile of stones. This is the Irish Hunger Memorial, an impressive monument that – like similar memorials in downtown Boston and Philadelphia – remembers the victims of the Great Hunger in Ireland, which saw roughly a quarter of Ireland’s population die or emigrate due to a fungus that devastated potato crops.

X

No person of status should be seen to ‘incite Venus’. An early description of a potato by Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin in 1596 seemed to have quite a lingering influence in Europe – it described the potato as a powerful natural aphrodisiac (as well as being poisonous and a direct cause of leprosy), so eating potatoes was uncomfortably blush-worthy for any self-respecting countess.

XI

When he first ate potatoes, as a Prussian prisoner, they were eaten in France only by animals. Now, Parmentier has a metro stop in Paris named after him, for dedicating his life to convincing people they should eat potatoes too. One such person, apparently, was Thomas Jefferson.

XII

1992. A playground, it’s getting dark. Scraps of the Soviet system and glimmers of Glasnost. Her mother rips a plant from beside the swing, shakes for the dirt to fall off tiny nuggets and takes them inside to cook all that’s reliable now.

XIII

Most of a potato’s nutrients – except for its starch – are contained in and just beneath the skin, including exceptional levels of Vitamin B6, good levels of fibre and plenty of Vitamin C.

This series is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird. David McKenzie looks every month at the most normal food you can imagine and offers a fresh view on it. In thirteen different ways.

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