Monday, April 07, 2008

This is the Year of the Potato

"Monday, potatoes; Tuesday potatoes; Wednesday potatoes..."

The old Yiddish song reflected the nutritional basis sustaining people in the shtetl. My father told us how his mother walled up a potato-filled room just as World War I was about to start, and this kept them from starvation. (I've written about this before.)

I didn't find the old song on the official United Nations IYP website: International Year of the Potato 2008. But in some places, the song's underlying theme of hunger and scarcity may soon have new meaning. "Food security in developing countries is a really big problem — bigger, in human impact, than the financial crisis in the United States," says Paul Krugman. (He has been discussing food insecurity in his blog at You say potato, I say potato, Grains gone wild, and in recent NYT columns.)

Peru is the native home of potato cultivation. They have grown them for 7000 years and now grow thousands of varieties, compared to no more than 5 or 10 grown around here. With the global price of grain increasing as it recently has, they may return to much more dependence on potatoes. “Peru needs to re-identify with the potato, because we have turned our back on it for too long,” says Alan García, Peru's President. “He also wants barracks, hospitals and prisons to start serving chuño, a naturally freeze-dried potato that is traditionally eaten by Andean Indians. Boiled chuño and cheese are said to have replaced sandwiches at cabinet meetings.” (For more details, see Llamas and mash in the Economist.)

I'm proud to be from a potato-producing state, descended from people whose survival depended on potatoes. Besides my own history, I've read about the Irish potato famine; I've learned about potatoes in Indian food; I've followed the history of potatoes as a staple into France by the trickery of Mr. Parmentier, and about their use in the foods of Italy. A recent episode of the show Lidia's Italy on PBS showed her cooking a combination of macaroni and potatoes, with a little bacon, which I would guess was designed to provide an affordable meal for hungry adolescents. Like many super nutritious dishes, it looked good, but too caloric for me.

Potatoes are a marvel, combining sustenance with delicious taste. Manna must have been made of potatoes.

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