Friday, June 05, 2009

The Potato

The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman begins with several chapters that detail the introduction of the potato into England, Ireland, France, and colonial North America. That's how far I've read. Zuckerman's bibliography underscores what's obvious in the book: he used a lot of original sources such as diaries and early government surveys to figure out about agricultural economies. This makes for occasionally challenging reading. I've read about potato history before, mainly The History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redcliffe N. Salaman and portions of more general food histories. I was thus aware of the superior nutritional values of the potato compared to other foods, and of the resistance that European populations -- even poor hungry ones -- had to its adoption.

Zuckerman highlights another important difference between potatoes and grain staples. The potato cooks quickly. Fuel for cooking (as well as for heating homes) was often an issue in early modern history. Rapidly growing European populations had not only strained the resources for growing food, but also had stripped forest areas clean. Coal was often expensive, especially where it had to be transported. Roasting or boiling a potato was fast and easy compared to baking bread or even to making porridge or soup, and for this reason as well as nutrition it became important in England, Ireland, and France. Americans created a different story in all ways -- America was richer and less populous, and its people were mysteriously open-minded to a wide variety of foods, including the potato.

I may have more to say when I read the second half of the book.

1 comment:

Cynthia Bertelsen said...

Thanks, Mae. I'm going to have to read this one.