The true history of the potato in Europe Let’s hear it for the peasants

Statue of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier being removed for cleaning

book cover

The story that’s often told of the potato in Europe is one of ignorant, superstitious peasants and wily aristocrats. The peasants shun the potato until the wily aristo plays a trick on them to open their eyes to the true value of the potato. The aristo might be someone like Antoine-Augustin Parmentier in France or Frederick the Great in Prussia, but whoever it was, the bones of the story remain the same. And — mea culpa — I believed the story and even retold it myself on occasion. So I naturally slapped my forehead, hard, when I heard Rebecca Earle give an online lecture about the history of the potato and resolved to talk to her myself.

Rebecca Earle doesn’t deny that something happened to put potatoes and their promoters into the history books, but shows clearly that the peasants were far smarter than history gives them credit for.

Notes

  1. Feeding the People: the Politics of the Potato by Rebecca Earle is a cracking read. If you buy it here, in the US or here, in the UK, I get a teeny-weeny commission and you get to feel good about supporting bookshops.
  2. I’ve no hesitation in linking to the episode Potatoes are (almost) perfect with Carol Deppe.
  3. The transcript will be here, sooner or later.
  4. Banner photograph is of Parmentier’s statue in Neuilly being removed for a good clean. Supporters get a special newsletter with lots more detail. Cover photo is a detail from The Potato Harvest (Kartoffelernte, 1889) by Ludwig Kraus.

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