Rebecca Earle, food historian and professor at the University of Warwick, has spent several years tracing the history of the potato from its early origins in the Andes to the commonly consumed starch that makes it onto kitchen tables around the world. Lindsay Campbell reports for Modern Farmer.
In her latest book, Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato, Earle explains the crop’s evolution to become today’s global staple, but also dives into how the vegetable became central to government dietary policy over the years. By tracing the history of the potato, Earle says we can understand how modern diets became what they are.
“Our everyday diets are part of history and there’s a history of how we came to eat the way we do,” she says.
Potatoes made their way to Europe from Peru after the Spanish invaded the Americas in the 1500’s and brought the crop back to their home continent. This was part of the catalyst for its gradual spread into other corners of the world, Earle says.
Potatoes were quietly consumed by peasants for thousands of years in South America, and then in Europe. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that European governments and Enlightenment-era thinkers started taking an interest in what ordinary people were cooking in their kitchens. States began recommending potatoes as ideal crops, Earle says, as they believed the children who consumed the vegetable were particularly resilient.
In the early 20th century, Earle says nutritionists started to abandon their previous focus on proteins as nourishment to adopt a more holistic understanding of nutrition that included potatoes.
In Nazi Germany, potatoes were used as a means to further assert nationalism. In the US, around the Second World War, the government released guidelines stressing the benefits of incorporating ample amounts of potatoes into everyday diets.
Earle says that following the history of the potato helps us understand the origins of the modern world. The potato’s story reminds us that innovation doesn’t always come from those named in history books. In the potato’s case, unknown farmers adapted their methods to influence the way we eat. It’s ultimately small farmers like those of the past, who will play a big role in solving the world’s current food security problems, she says.