Adrian Lee is an editor in The Globe and Mail’s Opinion section and the host of The Globe’s future-of-cities podcast, City Space.
Before all the mess, and certainly well before the latest ugliness, potatoes were a staple in John Visser’s life.
“We’d run through the potato fields, looking at the flowers and watching them grow,” he said, thinking back warmly to his days growing up on a farm in Victoria-by-the-Sea, PEI, which his father started in 1961. Today, in addition to running the family farm, he’s the chairman of the PEI Potato Board, putting the tater squarely in the centre of his life. “It’s the main crop on our farm and provides a living for our farm and our family and our employees.”
But then, in his words, things “hit the fan.”
In November, 2021, amid fears that Washington would issue a ban, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) suspended shipments of potatoes from Prince Edward Island to the United States. That meant the sudden loss of the largest market for potatoes in the Canadian province that produces the largest share of them – an island where the potato is part of its very culture and identity. The reason: findings in two fields of a soil-borne fungus that left affected potatoes with what The Washington Post described as an “unsightly canker.”
The disease, it should be said, is no small concern. According to Gordon Henry, a national manager with the CFIA, the fungus has been detected in 34 PEI fields since 2000, accounting for more than 1,600 acres of land in the province. It is microscopic and lives in the soil, and when an affected potato dies, it releases ever more spores. It only travels through soil, equipment or potatoes, but if it gets into a seed potato – a category grown specifically to produce the following year’s crop, and which, in PEI, is often exported outside the province – it saps future yields. Because of that, the fungus can effectively shut down production at a given farm.
But the government order – the first time Ottawa has intervened in this way since potato wart was first detected in the province in 2000 – defies certain on-the-ground realities. The cankered potatoes may be ugly, but they are perfectly safe to eat (and it should be said that there have been no discoveries of the wart on any potato that would make it in any form to our grocery stores). Countries around the world have ways to manage, mitigate and treat these kinds of relatively common diseases without such painful measures. And the export ban, which was finally lifted in late March of this year for all but PEI’s seed potatoes, covered all types in the province, not just the seed ones, which, if infected, pose the most danger; Mr. Visser says it has strangled confidence in the province’s crop among buyers in the U.S. and beyond, and a PEI government spokesperson told The Globe that the suspension has led to “economic, physical and mental difficulties over the past nine months.”
If left alone in soil, old potatoes will start to seed into a crop of new potatoes. That’s why many harvests have to be sold and used within a few months, which requires land and labour that PEI’s farmers simply could not provide due to the backlog from the export hiatus. So despite best efforts to move them across Canada – Western Canada had a weaker crop, Mr. Visser said, and many food banks accepted all they could – the surging cost of transport and logistics, plus the fact that Canadians just didn’t have an appetite for that many more potatoes, meant that PEI’s farmers were forced into a worst-case scenario. An estimated 300 million pounds of perfectly good, entirely edible PEI potatoes had to be obliterated in January – chipped into mulch by snowblowers – and while the CFIA says it is compensating affected farmers, the PEI Potato Board estimates $50-million in lost revenue.
What makes this waste all the more brutal is that humans have long come to rely on the generosity and nutrition of these vegetables we’ve abandoned, which have by and large obliged. That’s been keenly true this year, given the food crisis brought about by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a global breadbasket that has seen its usual shipments of staple grain blockaded by Russian aggressors. Amidst this, the humble potato has been a port in the storm for Canadian families in the face of the resulting inflation: According to Statistics Canada, Canadians paid 9.7 per cent more for food broadly this past April than the year before – but, in part because of PEI’s painful surplus, we actually paid 6.1 per cent less for potatoes.
For centuries, the reliable potato has been there for us. Its story is that of modern civilization, beginning as a nearly secret food fuelling an improbable empire stashed along the farthest-flung edges of a South American mountain range; only 500 years later, they are grown in nearly every country in the world and on every continent except Antarctica. They gift us with more calories, vitamins and nutrients per area of land sown than any other staple crop; they are easy to farm, requiring only a growing season of about 75 days, relatively little water, and just a spade (which gave us its nickname, “spud”). In millions of recipes from around the globe they are roasted, baked, fried, mashed, hashed, grated, scalloped, brined, wedged, puréed; they are so generously adaptable that they let us turn them into pancakes, crusts, soups, dumplings and liquor.
And how the potato became so globally ubiquitous and plentiful is a saga involving conquest, colonialism, shifting social mores, a miscommunication between men in pursuit of virility, and the quixotic campaign of a renaissance-man scientist who survived a war not so far from modern Ukraine, nearly 300 years ago.
The far-reaching food – “the Odysseus of tubers,” in the elegant phrase of poet William Matthews – has given us so much: a culinary lingua franca, a unifying staple, peace in times of tension, nourishment in hopeless places. When famines and revolutions knocked on people’s doors through history, potatoes have given them comfort. Yet for all that, they have suffered: from blight in certain places, but also from baseless stigma from our ancestors. And today, despite all we know, we still take the potato for granted, writes Larry Zuckerman in The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World: “The potato is no longer beneath contempt. Rather, it’s almost beneath notice.” Our willingness now to abide the scotching of 25 stadiums’ worth of potatoes on account of the smallest risk of an ugly yet perfectly edible wart only speaks more to ugliness on our part.
“The market is only so big and it can only handle so many extra potatoes,” Mr. Visser said. “But the consumption is not what it was years ago.”
How could we be so cruel to our steadfast saviour at its time of need?
The Incans were the first empire to be fed by the tubers from the plant Solanum tuberosum. High in the inhospitable Andes, potato plants first proved their famous hardiness and dense nutrition to the genius Incan farmers who domesticated them, on barely arable land and in an arid climate where other staples such as wheat, rice and corn couldn’t grow. One of their many potato innovations was “chuno,” which involved freezing potatoes in the cold nights of the Andean Altiplano, then exposing them to the mountains’ high sun, allowing them to be stockpiled safely underground for years. This gave the empire’s labourers the hardy and filling food they needed to create the infrastructure for Incan military might and civilization.
It was a necessary development. The obvious importance of storable staple grain meant that in military campaigns – which were fairly common during the tense 1500s to 1700s in Europe and the Americas – grain reserves became targets. “Wherever the local population depended on stored grain for survival, outright starvation was the usual and expected result of every extended campaign,” William H. McNeill wrote in his essay “How the Potato Changed the World’s History”, noting that the wartime value of potatoes eventually became so obvious to military leaders that “every military campaign on European soil after about 1560 resulted in an increase in potato acreage, down to and including the Second World War.”
Indeed, it was conflict that brought potatoes from South America to that soil. In 1526, Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Incan Empire’s territory, carrying with them a spirit of dominion and a series of highly infectious diseases. By 1572, what had once been the continent’s largest empire had been laid low – and, along with the silver extracted by chuno-fuelled slaves that would help fuel the rest of Christopher Columbus’s so-called “Exchange,” potatoes began making their way to northern Europe on trade ships.
But one thing that was not as easily exchanged across what was then northern Europe’s many-empired expanse was language. And so when reports of remarkable batatas arrived in places such as England – where upper-class people became intrigued by these new-fangled New World root vegetables that the Spanish claimed were male aphrodisiacs – the appetite for them soared. “This contributed to the white potato’s relatively rapid dissemination throughout the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” wrote Andrew F. Smith in Potato: A Global History. Even William Shakespeare nodded at this, when he had the lecherous Sir John Falstaff cry “let the sky rain potatoes!” as part of the character’s buffoonish foreplay in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But such apocryphal claims (especially when they relate to male sexual insecurities) are undaunted by facts, and by the time people realized that Spanish batatas actually referred to sweet potatoes from the Caribbean, and not the new vegetables from South America, potatoes had firmly taken root in Europe.
Backlash, it turns out, predates social media, and it was right around the corner. By the 1700s, elites and so-called experts were claiming potatoes were “excessively nourishing and so facilitated laziness,” wrote Rebecca Earle, the author of Feeding the People; worse, many accused the potato of spreading diseases ranging from dysentery to cholera, rickets and tuberculosis. Some Europeans believed the potato ruined the soil, and others sneered at it because the plant was never mentioned in the Bible; G.J. Mulder, one of the first Dutch research chemists, believed they infected people with “insipid, sluggish potato blood,” which then had to be countered by gin. Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had an opinion; he brazenly claimed that rice-led diets led to the use of opium and narcotics and diets dominated by the uber tuber led to drinking alcohol. In Peru, the potato’s native homeland, the masterful Indigenous farmers who made the Andes rich in potatoes were ridiculed, their outputs dismissed as lowly. As a result, many countries designated potatoes as fodder for livestock – but poor Europeans, who understood that they were marvels of nutrition, continued to plant them in their gardens, which often wound up saving them in times of famine.
Indeed, much of the stigma was a proxy for distaste for the poor, among whom the potato was indispensable. One popular 18th-century potato stew was described as “a wholesome good broth made at a very reasonable rate, to feed the poor in the country.” And the benefits were undeniable, too: According to a 2011 Harvard study by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, European regions that were suitable for potato cultivation between 1700 to 1900 “experienced larger increases in population and urbanization after the introduction of potatoes” of roughly 25 per cent to 27 per cent.
The productivity of potatoes also brought humanity more peace: Agricultural land was often a primary source of contention, and potatoes simply required less of it. According to a study by the U.S.-based National Bureau of Economic Research, there was a 26-per-cent decline in conflict in areas where potatoes could be grown, after they had proliferated widely in 1700. That means that some of the credit for the explosion of city life and population size during this time belongs to the humble spud.
By this point, though, European elites had turned the “low-class” potato into a tool of colonial condescension. By the 18th century, the British considered the potato “civilizing” in places such as India and the West Indies – learning about Europe’s borrowed vegetable was considered a marker of evolution (and, of course, British “benevolence”). Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the Swahili for “potato” roughly translates to “European root.” “The spread of potatoes around the world formed part of a highly ideological narrative of disinterested European philanthropy,” Prof. Earle wrote.
Meanwhile, in France, a man named Antoine-Augustin de Parmentier became the country’s papa de la patate, stamping out the last of the potato stigma in continental Europe.
In 1748, France’s parliament banned potatoes, believing that they caused leprosy, unsafe even for livestock. But when the Seven Years’ War broke out six years later, the Prussians were serving potatoes to prisoners, which included Parmentier, a French army pharmacist. There, in these miserable conditions, he was forced to eat these allegedly dangerous potatoes as rations – and he found no ill effects for it.
When he returned to France in 1766, Parmentier got back to his work in agronomics, including advocating for the first mandatory vaccination campaign for smallpox and contributing to the invention of the refrigerator. But he also campaigned to end the stigma around potatoes, believing they made people happy to eat. For proof, he argued, just look at the reaction of the small children who adored them.
It was an uphill climb. French people saw wheat as the “aristocrat of grains,” and grain-based porridge and bread as the holy staples of a plate, according to author Larry Zuckerman. So in a pioneering marketing stunt, Parmentier farmed 50 acres of land and had a guard stand near the plot in the daytime, making the vegetable seem desirable yet out of reach (and encouraging peasants to steal them at night). Parmentier then wooed members of the royal court, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, with bouquets of potato flowers, which they wore at a prominent banquet. And when bad wheat harvests led to famine conditions in France in the 1780s – mitigated only by a crop of potatoes – his campaign began to take hold. His work was even bipartisan: with the endorsement of the king, he published the Treatise on the Culture and Use of the Potato, Sweet Potato, and Jerusalem Artichoke in 1789 – just before the French Revolution – but the Republic eventually took to potatoes as food for the common people, urging them to grow the tubers (“too long ignored and even scorned,” according to a republican pamphlet) on land once reserved for nobles’ frivolity such as rabbit warrens. And when Parmentier died, in 1813, they ringed his grave with potato plants, which would nourish the future, in the way his work did in his time.
Their reputation as food of the people in England wound up contributing to their popularity in the American colonies; potatoes were part of the founding fathers’ farmsteads, according to Mr. Zuckerman, and they were essential in the American narrative of anti-British self-sufficiency in a vast land of bounty (with strangely little consideration for the people who were already there). In the 1800s, the potato’s importance in certain countries became a weakness, as when a fungal infection wiped out entire harvests in Ireland, which had become heavily reliant on the crop, leading to mass starvation, disease, the deaths of an estimated one million Irish people and the flight of at least a million more. But as populations exploded, industrial and agricultural revolutions in the West dashed the last of the stigma; in Europe, the potato’s ultimate rise stemmed from “the decline of bread’s sacred, unique place,” particularly with the decline of home baking, wrote Mr. Zuckerman. And by the 1900s, governments around the world started seeing hunger and malnutrition through the lens of national security and political stability, incorporating the productive potato into post-Second World War welfare programs.
Other agricultural imports have shaped cultures in similar ways. The tomato, after all, is not native to Italy; nor are chili peppers to India or cattle to the Americas. But what made the potato unique was how easily it slipped into nearly any cultural context, owing to its ability to grow nearly anywhere on Earth regardless of soil quality (or even, as NASA and China did in 1995, off Earth altogether), and its necessity to the globe’s rural poor. This wasn’t because of some unearned blessing from one or another fickle god – these were gifts of the potato.
Potatoes are everywhere, if you look close enough. They don’t just form the backbone of modern human history; they are elevated as such in our art, from the famine-wrought poetry of Seamus Heaney and the odes of Pablo Neruda to the big screen (including Lord of the Rings, The Martian, and, more crassly, the mashed-potato zit impression in Animal House).
Perhaps the potato’s most beautiful application in art, though, can be found in Leo Tolstoy’s 1867 epic, War and Peace.
The novel’s iconic protagonist, Pierre Bezukhov, finds himself a prisoner of war of Napoleon’s French army, and is shocked by what he has witnessed: the execution of five Russian men by firing squad. Pierre is then told he has been pardoned, and he is placed in a barracks, where he sits in a silent daze: “All his faith had been undermined, faith in the good order of the universe, in the souls of men, in his own soul, even in God,” Tolstoy writes.
There, a peasant named Platon offers him a kind conversation, as well as a treat: a simple baked potato, with a little bit of salt. And suddenly, Pierre finds himself capable of conversation, of connection, of continuing. “He lay where he was with his eyes open in the darkness, listening to Platon’s steady snoring at his side,” wrote Tolstoy, “and he could feel his ruined world rising up again in his soul with a new kind of beauty, and its new foundations were unshakable.”
In times of hardship, the potato teaches us, we need to take consolation in small things. For Tolstoy, the value of human life is in its ordinary moments and the prosaic virtues that unite us as people. The potato, then, may be ordinary, and even sometimes unsightly – an insult that PEI’s farmers know all too well – but it is also a potato. That should be more than enough.
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