The Oldie: Profitable Wonders – August 2011
We may like to imagine our distant ancestors helping themselves to Nature’s bounty, plucking ripe grapes from the vines overhead, lifting splendid sized turnips and carrots from the soil—but as the famed naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre points out it was never like that. While she supplies, through the food chain, abundant provision from the highest to the lowest of the animal kingdom, for humans she has always been’a harsh step-mother’, requiring us to labour mightily, the sweat forming on our brows, cultivating the original wild varieties of grasses and vegetables so as to transform them into life-sustaining, hunger-assuaging foods.
Wheat would be a pale shadow of its present self were it not for two fortuitous genetic accidents ten thousand years ago creating the fertile hybrids with other grasses that would turn it into ‘the staff of life’. But the plump ‘ears’ of grain that resulted, tightly enclosed in their protective sheath of chaff could not propagate themselves. It required rather human labour to reap the harvest, winnow it, grind the grain into flour and then scatter the seeds for next year’s crop.
And so too the potato which in its original state in the inhospitable mountains of Chile and Peru was, as Fabre records,’a meagre inedible tubercle, the size of a walnut’. “Man plants this sorry weed, tends it and makes it fruitful. The potato thrives growing in size and nourishing properties to finally becoming a farinaceous tuber the size of a fist."
And that farinaceous tuber—so easy to grow it can be cultivated, if necessary, with bare hands—sustained the great 400 year civilization of the Incas whose empire stretched from present day Argentina to Colombia. And then famously it arrived in Europe to become the cheap staple diet of the labouring masses making possible that explosion in population that underpinned the Industrial Revolution.In Ireland between 1760 and 1840—where just half an acre of potatoes could sustain a (large) family for a year—the population soared from 1.5 million to 9 million, an increase of 600% in just 80 years.
It would be difficult to underestimate the influence of the potato on human affairs for reasons that verge on the metaphysical. It is, to start with, no mean achievement to be a’staple food’ requiring the potato not just to provide sufficient energy generating calories to fuel the cycle of life, but all those essential vitamins—thiamine, riboflavin, folic acid and niacin-, and minerals—magnesium, phosphorous, iron and zinc—without which humans are vulnerable to such devastating deficiency diseases as scurvy, beriberi, anaemia and the like.
Nor does it stop there, for this commonplace undistinguished tuber provides more joyous gastronomic variety than any other food. Jane Grigson devotes nearly 20 pages of her famous vegetable book to the possibilities whose names alone are sufficient to evoke a thousand memorable meals—roast, boiled, mashed and baked potatoes, potato salad, soup, gnocchi and gratin. Nigel Slater elaborates, reflecting on what it is about eating potatoes that make him ‘feel so good’. “Could it be the way its flesh soaks up cream and garlic in a gratin, or mashes so beautifully with butter? Might it be the way its outside crisps and shines when roasted while its inside stays moist and gooey? Perhaps it is the pleasure I get from squashing a steamed potato into the gravy of a lamb casserole. Maybe it is hearing the salty rustle of the thinnest frites around a sizzling steak. Or could it be that moment when I smash open a baked potato and its solid white flesh turns to hot white snow?"
Growing concealed from view beneath several inches of earth it is perhaps too easy to take for granted the source of so much goodness and pleasure. Certainly the subterranean alchemy by which the potato plant absorbs nutrients from air and soil defies any ready explanation—as does its converting them into those bulging edible protuberances on its roots. “When we eat a potato, we eat the earth and we eat the sky", writes the ecologist John Stewart Collis. This, he suggests, exemplifies that law of nature, “Much from little, even something out of nothing. Whenever anyone takes a good look at a potato, faith is reborn."