Today’s selection — from Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal by Mark Bittman. The Spanish brought a number of foods from the Americas to Europe in the years following Columbus’ discovery of the New World, including the potato and the tomato:
“When the Spanish brought the potato to Europe [from the Americas] in the mid-sixteenth century, most people were too blinded by arrogance and tradition to recognize its value, and many considered it poisonous. But root vegetables were nothing new, and soon enough the potato was being grown for animal fodder. By the end of the eighteenth century it had become a widespread staple, credited not only with ending famine but with boosting population in just about every country where it became popular.
“Nowhere was this more prevalent than in Ireland. In a pattern set by post-feudal landowners and repeated throughout the colonial era all across the world, the best land in Ireland had been enclosed and was used either for grazing cattle or for growing corn and other crops; most of this was tended by impoverished Irish sharecroppers before being shipped across the Irish Sea.
“What was left for the native population was small plots of land perfect for the potato, and so by 1800 Ireland had become a country of smallholders, most with ‘farms’ under an acre in size, who ate potatoes several times a day. Some estimates put daily per capita potato consumption at twelve pounds, and nearly half the population ate almost nothing but.
“Despite what you might have been led to believe, the Irish thrived on the potato diet. Because contrary to reigning current opinion, if there were such a thing as a superfood (there really isn’t), potatoes would be on the list, ahead of berries, avocados, green tea, and many other heralded foods. Especially when eaten skin-on, potatoes contain most of the important vitamins, including vitamin C (they effectively ended scurvy in many countries), minerals, fiber, and protein. Add a little milk and you have a nearly complete, if unexciting, diet.
“Eating potatoes, then, can be a good thing. And in Ireland, between 1780 and 1840, infectious diseases and infant mortality decreased, life spans increased, and the population doubled to eight million, mostly thanks to the potato.
“But the potato crop was vulnerable. As I said, the Irish famine of the 1840s wasn’t the fault of the potato. The blame falls on Phytophthora infestans, the microorganism that began the blight. It falls on the British for their exploitative extraction of cash crops overseas, which the starving Irish poor couldn’t afford to buy and the British wouldn’t give. And it falls on the dominance of monoculture, which saw entire plots of land devoted to a single crop. Not only were many of the Irish growing only potatoes; they were growing only one type of potato.
“Potatoes do produce seeds under some conditions, but those seeds don’t often ‘breed true,’ or produce plants with the same characteristics as their parents. So most potatoes are grown from chunks of potatoes (the ‘eye’ is the sprout) and have identical characteristics — they are, in fact, clones. And although Andean farmers had developed more than four thousand varieties of potato, bred to thrive in different soils, seasons, locales, climates, and elevations, most of the Irish had only one clone. As it happened, that clone was susceptible to the blight, and when the blight attacked, it was all over.
“No one knows exactly how many Irish went blind (a symptom of smallpox, one consequence of the famine), led otherwise diminished lives, died, or simply left, most to America.
“The Irish Potato Famine is famous, but it’s hardly unique. Famines have been a part of human history from the beginning. The horrible irony, however, is that once agriculture had advanced enough to nourish all the world’s people, famines only became even more common and horrific, a direct result of imperialism and colonialism, which demanded of agriculture not food for people, but goods for market.”