Staple though it is today, the lowly potato had a hard time reaching its preeminent status in Western cuisine. Perhaps its lengthy purgatory has something to do with the tale that when Sir Walter Raleigh gave some potatoes to Queen Elizabeth, her cooks tossed aside the roots and served up the boiled greens instead, causing a court-wide case of indigestion. Whether that’s the case or not—and there’s no evidence that Raleigh ever so much as set eyes on a potato—for decades Europeans would have nothing to do with the tuber. At best, it was found useful to feed the cattle. At worst, it was considered a leprosy-inducing invention of the devil.
This belief was particularly pernicious in the fair fields of France, a country at the time holding a quarter of Europe’s inhabitants despite its periodic decimation by epidemic and famine. By the beginning of the 17th century France’s population had reached twenty million and continued to rise. Clearly, a cheap, plentiful, and resilient crop was just what the nutritionist ordered, yet even in the face of the brutal demographic crises that popped up every ten to fifteen years over the next two centuries, each time lopping two or three million inhabitants off the non-existent voting rolls, the potato remained unpondered, unprized, and unplanted.
Clearly, the potato needed a champion. What it got was a pharmacist.
Captured by the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), French pharmacist Antoine Parmentier became acquainted with the ignoble Solanum tuberosum while a prisoner of war. As a prisoner, he was fed little but boiled potato mash, which was sometimes his only food for a fortnight and a day. His jailers considered the tubers mere slops; Parmentier, finding them both nutritious and tasty, did not complain of the menu. In fact, he acquired rather a taste for it, and on achieving his freedom made it his mission in life to preach the spuds’ virtues. He realised that they could be a solution to the pesky problem of those massive famines sweeping through France with such distressing regularity.
But this one man’s realisation and his pannier of potatoes were up against a profusion of problems. The French were not only uninterested, they were convinced that potatoes were poisonous. The Parlement of Paris had even banned the tuber’s cultivation in 1748 in the belief that it caused leprosy. Why leprosy is unknown; perhaps it was due to the scabby and spotted nature of the potato’s skin. The Church, which collected a tax on all agricultural production and therefore profited but scantly from anything as cheap as the potato, pointed out that this strange root from America was not mentioned in the Bible, and must therefore be dangerous and evil—possibly even the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Apparently the serpent tempted Eve with a plate of fries.
The true peasantry of other countries—those who cared little for what the learned said and were more concerned with the emptiness of their bellies—had disproved the theories of poison some time before. If Parmentier was fed potatoes in Prussia, it was because the peasants of that country had been growing them for their own benefit. In a land forever being trampled by an endless succession of armies battling over various monarchical successions, the plucky potato had the distinct advantage of being grown underground, and the peasants were no more (nor no less) rickety for surviving on them. Frederick the Great eventually noticed and began distributing seeds and growing instructions free of cost, and they became a staple crop. In fact, the War of Bavarian Succession—the little 1778-1779 war, not the major Wars of Spanish, Polish, and Austrian Succession that took up the rest of the eighteenth century before the French Revolution became a new excuse for pan-European battling—became known as the “Potato War.” Some say this was because the soldiers spent their time raiding each other’s potato fields instead of fighting, others that they threw potatoes at each other instead of cannonballs, others yet that it simply happened to take place during the potato harvest. Whichever it was, this particular war has rarely been taken seriously.
But the fact that barbarous Prussians (against whom the French had been fighting for years), and barbarous peasants in some of the provinces, and barbarous foreigners of dubious taste were showing signs of a penchant for potatoes was unlikely to convince the churlish chauvinists of the world’s most civilised country of the tuber’s virtues. Parmentier therefore embarked on a series of scientific experiments that proved that the potato was perfectly nutritious. He summarised his proofs in a treatise presented to the Academy of Besançon when the latter ran a competition asking for suggestions regarding foods that could serve in times of famine. Parmentier’s treatise ran off with the laurels, but then as now, scientific evidence was worth little in the face of preconceived ideas. The potato remained anathematised.
Forgoing the boiling of beakers and the pouring of powders in his pharmacist’s den, Parmentier left off producing potions to make his case in the venerable French locale of the kitchen. But when his decision to address his potato cookbook of 1777 to the housewives of France failed to convince them of the potato’s worth, Parmentier decided to woo the court instead, taking aim at the very top. The top was currently Louis XVI, a fat, good-natured, and pious monarch who was easily the most conscientious, caring king the French had seen in two hundred years, and whose head was later to be sliced off for his pains. A strong supporter of science and a man deeply moved by the suffering of his famished people, Louis agreed to support Parmentier, and in 1785 offered him some land on which to experiment. Parmentier was soon throwing dinner parties with twenty different potato-based dishes on the menu.
Fashion being everything at the French court, on 24 August 1786 Parmentier presented the king and his queen with a bouquet of potato flowers. Antoinette added them to her hat, Louis to his jabot, and the fashion immediately spread among the clustered sycophants of Versailles. But convincing the aristocracy that potato flowers were pretty was not going to make the people eat their roots.
This is when someone—reports differ as to whether it was Louis or Parmentier who had the idea—came up with a wonderful con job to manipulate the peasantry into filling their bellies with the miracle crop.
For centuries, much of the French kings’ wealth had flowed from the loathed gabelle, the onerous and unfair salt tax. The king’s monopoly on salt was among the leading complaints that led inevitably to the Revolution; salt-tax collectors were among the most likely royal officials to be murdered, and a whole series of revolts can be traced back to how this tax was applied. With the outrageous variability of this tax’s rate between regions, salt smuggling was one of the biggest of black-market businesses: profits could be huge, and the smugglers were lionised by the population as veritable Robin Hoods. The military might of the kingdom was therefore deputised to preserve the monarch’s prerogative, keeping salt fields and salt convoys well-guarded; but this only egged the smugglers on.
So when soldiers were stationed around Parmentier’s fields, guarding them as carefully as if they were paved with salt, the fact was noted by the eagle-eyed starvelings in the neighbourhood. It was also noted that the soldiers were serious about their duty, and clearly under orders to shoot at anybody getting too close.
Yet despite these extremely thorough precautions on the authorities’ part, the soldiers occasionally had the night off. On such nights, seeing nothing suspicious in this—their eagle eyes seemingly being matched by somewhat birdish brains—the locals surreptitiously liberated a few potatoes from the field, apparently feeling there was no reason that only the rich should benefit from this clearly expensive and non-leprosy-inducing crop. And as Louis and Parmentier looked on with what one imagines were rather smug grins on their faces, officially illicit fields of “parmentières” slowly began to pop up across the breadth of France. The peerless proponents of potatoes had successfully hoodwinked the citizenry into saving themselves.
Louis praised Parmentier, claiming that France would one day thank him for having “invented the poor man’s bread,” though by this time he himself was not averse to seeing ‘taters at the royal table. Alas, however much his example may have helped, the general acceptance of the potato came a little too late for Louis. Had this solution to permanent famine been brought about a few years earlier, his throne might not have teetered quite as badly as it did. As it was, while Louis found himself disempowered, then dethroned, then decapitated, the potato continued to spread its roots. As France went from puritanical dictatorship to anarchy to military tyranny to empire to a briefly-interrupted monarchical restoration to a revolution-spawned constitutional monarchy to a riot-spawned republic soon brushed away by a coup d’état establishing a new empire—nineteenth-century French history is a tad eventful—the poor man’s bread became the most reliable foodstuff Europe knew, even, according to some, helping Europe escape from the pre-industrial “Malthusian trap.” So reliable was it, in fact, that in Ireland, an island that had come to subsist on little else, a simple potato fungus in 1845 was able to cause a fair bit of damage—if by “fair bit of damage” we accept “total and utter catastrophe killing over a million people and depopulating the island by a quarter through death and emigration.”
Parmentier did not live to see his cherished potato fail the Irish, but he did survive the French Revolution, which like most revolutions was not a good time for scientists—particularly those with ties to the court. When his contemporary Antoine de Lavoisier was condemned to death for having been a gabelle-collecting tax farmer under the Ancien Régime, he begged for a momentary reprieve so that he could complete an experiment he was conducting, but only received the answer that “The Revolution needs neither scientists nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be deferred.” Lavoisier’s head kept a rendezvous with a basket the next day. But Lavoisier had merely invented modern chemistry; Parmentier was saved by the demonstrable usefulness of his endeavours. It turned out that when the Revolution and its successors starved or were otherwise culinarily discomfited, scientists were needed after all—and so was the potato, which the revolutionary authorities planted in the Tuileries gardens in 1795, in the face of yet another terrible famine. Later yet, when England blockaded Napoleon’s France, it was Parmentier who first managed to extract sugar from beetroots, which nullified the lack of imported sugar cane that had left the French bereft of sugar for their coffee, cakes, and comfits. Though gourmets winced at the flavour, beet sugar allowed Napoleon to thumb his nose at the Brits a little longer, without fearing a rebellion of sweet-toothed pastry-makers. But this should not suggest any great love for Parmentier at the time. In fact, it appears that during the Revolution mention was made of giving him some official office: he was rejected, so it seems, when it was protested that, given authority, “He’ll make us eat nothing but potatoes! He’s the one who invented them!”
Though lacking an official post, Parmentier did successfully acquire other forms of authority, accumulating no fewer than 48 separate diplomas throughout his lifetime. And though some may have thought he cared more for potatoes than people, Parmentier proved that his justification for preaching the plants—his care for the masses—was no jest, as he was also a prime mover for general vaccination against smallpox in France.
Alas for him, however, the name “parmentière” never quite caught on as an alternate name for the potato, even in France. There it remains the pomme de terre (earth apple), or simply the patate—the latter finding a second life as an insult roughly equivalent to “moron” or “chump.” The proselytising pharmacist is little remembered outside of French history textbooks. Perhaps he would have been consoled that his name is immortalised by a rather delicious potato and leek soup—were it not for the fact that “potage parmentier” is better known as Vichyssoise.