From the outside, our love for potatoes would seem questionable and misplaced considering the heartache and devastation we historically share. Yet, like all the great romances, ours too is one of twists and turns but somehow, we stuck it out and here we are, almost six hundred years after our introduction, inextricably connected despite a complicated relationship.
In his landmark work “The History and Social Influence of the Potato”, published in 1949, British botanist and potato breeder, Redcliffe Nathan Salaman relays the remarkable impact the potato had on the countries and people that adopted it as a staple food as it journeyed from South America’s Incan territories throughout Europe in the late 1500s. The book details every aspect of the history of the potato with a particular focus on Ireland. He wrote “in no other country can potato’s influence on the domestic and economic life of the people be studied to greater advantage”.
Prior to the Great Famine of 1845 our relationship with the potato flourished. The tuber that was rejected by the British Empire as bitter and of the “devil’s realm” quickly established itself as our staple food making up for almost 80% of our daily calorific intake, which equated to seven to fourteen pounds of spuds a day! We loved them and they loved us, so much so, that from 1780 to 1840, following our adoption of the potato, the Irish population doubled from 4 million to 8 million. We grew bigger and stronger than our rural English counterparts who lived on bread. Infant mortality decreased and we were a healthy bunch for the most part.
For the scrawny peasants of rural Ireland back in the day, getting their hands on a feed of spuds was akin to a royal feast. Unlike the British, the Irish figured out that cooking them made them much more palatable, more digestible and the ease at which they grew in our climate made them an ideal alternative to the meagre grains and foraged foods we relied on. Even our folk medicine practitioners included them in their healing although some remedies were dubious. Raw, sliced potato was used to aid bruising and stop bleeding. Frostbite and sunburn was treated by applying raw potato to the affected area. A toothache was supposedly eased by carrying a potato in your pocket – this medic was struck off the register, as was his buddy who came up with putting a slice of cooked potato in a stocking and tying it around your neck to ease a sore throat! However, some of the old remedies lasted through time such as relieving aches and pains by rubbing the affected area with the water potatoes have been boiled in. Perhaps, this is where the idea of treating arthritic pain with poitín came from, although, I strongly suspect the alcohol provided the pain relief.
We fell hard for the potato, almost like love at first sight and this dependence ultimately was at the root (pardon the pun) of the devastation caused when a blight infestation ruined our crops and led to the famine of 1845-1860. Prior to this grim time in,
we gained much from the nourishment derived from the potato - it was and still is almost a perfect food, providing complex carbohydrates, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Today, we know that nutritionally speaking, potatoes offer an abundance of good stuff – vitamin C, fibre, potassium, vitamin B6, iron, magnesium and antioxidants. It is low in calories and sodium and a great source of fuel for both the mind and body.
Modern Ireland has seen a decline in the consumption of potatoes over recent years as they have been vilified as a dirty carb, fattening and a driver of our obesity. Nothing could be further from the truth! In the 1800s, a British group of activists were dedicated to stamping out the potato. They called themselves “The Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet” or SPUD for short. Some claimed that this is the origin of the potato being called a spud! Like many of the food activists of today, their mission was unsubstantiated and flawed, more likely motivated by alternative food interests. Gardeners and farmers are busy digging the earlies and watching the main crop, with the luck of the Irish it will be bountiful and plenty. Our love story with the potatoes may not be as racy as Fifty Shades of Grey, yet we can be proud of our passion and enduring loyalty to the humble spud. In a fickle world of fad foods and trends, the potato is here to stay, now pass the butter, André!