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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.
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Very….damn interesting! Love the articles you guys post.
Would you please post your source for this claim:
“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.”
Also, when you say “The Church,” do you mean to say that this teaching on potatoes was an official stance of the Catholic Church? Who specifically said this?
For the record the occupying English killed all those ppl during the spud famine, by forcing them to export all the other crops, that said excellent as always :)
On your final note, it seems you’re forgetting the french variation of cottage pie, which is called “hachis parmentier”. It makes regular appearances in school dining halls, is an easy comfort food and you could even find some gourmet duck-based cans of it in french military rations.
Parmentier is not remembered in the name of the potato, but a delicious gratin dish is named “hachis parmentier”. It’s a layer of seasoned minced meat (often leftovers) covered with a layer of mashed potatoes, a little bit of grated cheese, and put to grill in an oven.
Very interesting, a darned good read and to make spuds a topic of interest is a little bit of genius in itself.
This sounds delicious, positively making me drool!
Other than the various sources already present under ‘further reading’, for resistance to the potato on biblical grounds, see (1), (2) and (3). Voltaire commenting on Parmentier’s efforts through the publication of pamphlets, pointed out that the peasants couldn’t read; their main source of information was the village cure, who in the provinces was quiet likely to be almost as ill-educated as they.
The history of the search for identifying the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a fascinating one in its own right. Many options have been proposed. The apple, of course, is the most common; this seems to derive from a false Latin etymology, either a confusion between or a pun on ‘mali’, as ‘Evil’ is noted in the Latin, and ‘malum’, apple. In fact, the apple’s identification as the fruit Eve ate is a latecomer; it has been suggested that it came about during the Christianisation of Celtic Europe, whose paradise was Avalon, the Isle of Apples. Desiring to root this out, apples had to become identified with evil. It’s one theory. (4)
Another very popular candidate is the fig, based on the fact that Adam and Eve reported covered themselves with fig leaves when they realised they were naked. (5) However, as Toussaint-Samat points out on the next page, scientifically this is untenable, as the fig is not actually a fruit (6). Further candidates were the apricot and the orange (7).
Plants that came from the New World were, however, happily assimilated with the fruit. Partly this may be due to the conviction that the New World presented ‘virgin ground’, an ‘unspoiled view of nature’ — not to mention the idea that the Natives of North America might be descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel (8). Among these was the tomato, which due to its relationship with various poisonous plants was regarded suspiciously well into the 19th century. The tomato has the advantage of actually being a fruit, though as has been said, the wisdom acquired on eating it is not to put it in a fruit salad. Just as the potato is known as the ‘earth apple’ in France, the tomato was first introduced as the ‘love apple’ – derived from the Italian pomodamor. In fact, the Italian originally meant ‘Moor’s apple’, as the tomato was believed to have been introduced by the Moors, but the euphony with the word ‘amor’, love, was too good to resist. This was enhanced by belief in the aphrodisiacal nature of the tomato, something that was also ascribed to the potato. (9) (10)
Gaspard Bauhin, who gave the potato its scientific name, noted this supposed faculty, doubtless another reason why the potato was considered a candidate for being a source of evil. He also noted its propensity for causing flatulence, which was recognised throughout the centuries, though around the time that Parmentier was working, the upper classes, prepared to propagate the potato as peasant food, simply noted ‘What’s an extra bit of wind to a peasant?’ (11)
One will, of course, note the sexual connotations of many of these proposed candidates, with the tomato and potato being considered aphrodisiac, and the long-standing association of the fig with the testicles and the apricot with the female genitalia. Perhaps this is why the French, wishing to keep up their reputation as lovers, eventually adopted both tomato and potato. Today, they grow more tomatoes than any other foodstuff, exceeding even the potato. (12)
(2) Harvey Benham, Man’s Struggle for Foodp. 297
(3) Kenneth Kiple, A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization, p. 139
(5) Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, p. 671.
(6) Ibid., p. 672
(7) Ibid., p. 671
(9) Kenneth Kiple, A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization, p.141
(10) Janet Long, “Tomatoes”, in The Cambridge World History of Food, I: 354-358
(11) Madeleine Ferrières, Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fears
(12) Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, p. 709.
P. S.: As to your question regarding the Catholic Church’s official stance, I very much doubt it had a great deal to say about potatoes. Several popes demonstrated an interest in potatoes as early as the 16th century, when Philip II of Spain first sent some to the Vatican. (See Ferrières, Toussaint-Samat, and Kiple.) But one must remember that the Gallican Church jealously guarded its privileges vis à vis Rome and had a strong independent streak to it. France was noticeably resistant to the potato, far more so than other countries. And of course, there was also resistance due to the fact that potatoes were fodder for beasts: if the Prussians fed Parmentier potatoes, it’s because slops for the pigs were good enough for the prisoners. There was a long tradition of differentiating humans from the other animals by insisting that humans not eat like beasts, which included not eating the food reserved for animals except in time of direst famine — and even then some people resisted eating potatoes. (See especially Ferrières.)
Certainly, Scottish Presbyterians noted the potato’s absence from the Bible.
Thanks for a great article, and that response is DI as well. Its funny how much we take for granted today, I can’t imagine being denied what I think of as staples like potatoes, tomatoes and such simply because of ignorance and a fear of new things.
When I learned French back in college, we were taught that “pomme de terre” (“apple from the earth”) was the French for “potato”. A quick search suggests that “patate” refers to the root and “pomme de terre” refers to the whole plant, but I’m no expert on French so I could be a bit off there.
Still, “apple from the earth” sounds much more appetizing. :-)
Hmm. You may have been misinformed. ‘Pomme de terre’ translates much more rigourously as ‘earth apple’ rather than as ‘apple from the earth’, which would (pedantically) be ‘pomme de la terre’. But I don’t disagree about the rather more salivatory nature of ‘apple from the earth’.
One of my dictionaries tells me that the best translation for ‘patate’ is ‘spud’, so you may be on to something with the distinction between the two.
Of course, one reason people didn’t like potatoes at first is that it took them a while to work out that peeling and cooking them was an ideal. Certain nutritionists have restored the value of the peel (and others war against them), but certainly, taking the ‘apple’ part of the term to heart and eating potatoes as one does the fruit was eventually worked out to not be the best of ideas.
What an odd article. “Parmentier invented the potato for the good of mankind”, except the entire world outside France already knew about it.
Are we to understand that, after all, France (and Paris in particular) is the center of the world?
If one listens to the French of the day (and a number of them since), certainly.
While it is true that much of the rest of Europe was aware of the potato, one must bear in mind that it was nevertheless not considered food fit for human consumption. The Germans fed it to their pigs; the English, following much the same line of reasoning, gave it to the Irish. The propensity of French noblemen and other landowners to follow the fashions of Paris — or, more accurately, Versailles — was instrumental in getting them to consider feeding potatoes to their own peasants. And while the famines that came about during the revolutionary wars were certainly a leading cause of the parochial but starving being willing to eat potatoes, the latter would not have been as widely available in France at the time. It is entirely likely that without potatoes, the revolution would have collapsed much sooner, through sheer attrition. As it was, France survived long enough to lose most of its (male) population in the Napoleonic wars instead.
This has been an interesting reading, and funny with that. But I would draw your attention to one fact, that the anecdote about the refusal of Lavoisier’s request by the answer “The Republic does not need savants” is a historical forgery created by the reaction. A Swiss wrote a conference about that :
It would be nice to re-establish the truth.
Thank you for passing that along; I must admit to my shame that I did not push my research into Lavoisier particularly far. The paper you linked to is quite convincing, though given the author’s rhetorical style, I think I’d like to see a second bit of research into this before I categorically rallied to ‘Didn’t happen’ camp — though it’s such a bon mot that odds are, alas, that it indeed did not occur.
I thought that Friderick the great of Prussia is the one who used the trick, to make people eat potatoes.. I also found some sources saing so…
“Frederick the Great of Prussia saw the potato’s potential to help feed his nation and lower the price of bread, but faced the challenge of overcoming the people’s prejudice against the plant. When he issued a 1774 order for his subjects to grow potatoes as protection against famine, the town of Kolberg replied: “The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?” Trying a less direct approach to encourage his subjects to begin planting potatoes, Frederick used a bit of reverse psychology: he planted a royal field of potato plants and stationed a heavy guard to protect this field from thieves. Nearby peasants naturally assumed that anything worth guarding was worth stealing, and so snuck into the field and snatched the plants for their home gardens. Of course, this was entirely in line with Frederick’s wishes.” http://www.history-magazine.com/potato.html
Does anybody know which is true?
Frederick the Great certainly encouraged the cultivation of potatoes, distributing seeds and growing instructions, which is why the Prussians had potatoes available to feed their pigs (and prisoners), but this is the first time I’ve heard the story attached to him (and I’ve done a lot of reading about potatoes recently). i suspect this is a case of misattribuation.
Where do the Russians and their distilled potato spirits come into this? Or was Russia too disconnected from Europe of the day?
Very interesting read and extremely lively narration studded with sarcastic humor. Other than the article I really enjoyed your comment: “The Germans fed it to their pigs; the English, following much the same line of reasoning, gave it to the Irish. ” !!
I actually don’t know how the potato made it to Russia, but I suspect that one of the two Prussia-worshipping monarchs (either Peter III or Paul) followed Frederick the Great’s lead and brought the tuber in. Alternately, Catherine the Great (who was after all German herself) might have had the idea. Considering the notorious conservatism of the Russian peasantry at the time, one suspects that the potato must have been introduced from the top there as well.
As for the distilled spirits, history (not to mention folklore) suggests that Russian peasants mostly lived on turnips at the time — which might have made the introduction of the potato easier, as the idea of eating a root vegetable was well-entrenched by that stage. Whatever one may think of the turnip’s taste, it cannot be denied that they do have a flavour. Based on the fact that one of the great objections to potatoes was their flavourlessness, it seems to me eminently likely that the Russians found the new root equally bland, and simply decided that it could be put to better use making a drink that could let them forget they had nothing to eat but turnips.
The same thing happened to the Vikings in Greenland. Despite the fact that the natives thrived in that environment, the invaders completely starved to death when they eroded the soil and their farms ran bankrupt – rather than eat the abundant fish that could be found in the sea.
It wouldn’t be the only time that someone has come up with the idea though. The British explorer Captain Cook is said to have marked his barrels of saurkraut (known to prevent scurvy) as “Officers Only”, knowing that the common sailors wouldn’t be able to avoid stealing anything meant only for their superiors. His voyage to observe the transit of Venus was subsequently largely scurvy-free.
I eat potatoes every dinner. 1 whole unskinned potato, beans in tomato sauce, and 2 beer bratwursts cooked well-over-well-done in water and soy sauce.
I’ll mix the beans and potatoes together with Mayonnaise.
I have been told that is a rather nasty combination, wait till you try it.
Very interesting article! I would like to add some things: in common language, pomme de terre and patate are the same (they are used to describe hte potato), altough patate is more common. As for the parmentier and the vichyssoise, they are not quite the same thing, as a parmentier is the soup described, but the vichyssoise is served cold, and also has cream (in) and chives (as decoration).
Hmm. Perhaps it’s merely that in the English-speaking world, people tend to use ‘Vichyssoise’ for a leek-and-potato soup, modifying the name with ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ at needs (even if it’s admitted that the cold version is the authentic one).
Also, I always forget to add the chives. Oops.
You are right and the end of the post is completely false… Which feels really strange because It was an awesome read. I loved it, right to the point where “french people don t know parmentier”. The hachis parmentier is an extremely popular dish and everyone here knows where the name came from.
This was the only part of the text that I can fact check, and it’s erroneous… Too bad, because now I feel like I shoud doubt the rest of the text as well.
Perhaps I might have better expressed it as ‘little known outside of France’ rather than ‘outside of French history textbooks’, which I hoped would get that point across. I was forgetting that history isn’t necessarily taught any longer and that it therefore couldn’t be assumed that everyone in France would have heard that.
As for the hâchis, however, I can only hang my head in shame. This is what comes of mostly using Italian cookbooks.
At the heart of the tragedy that we know as the Titanic lies the Potato Famine in Ireland. There was only a famine because the entire crop came from one genus and had others been available this disaster might have been mitigated.
So great was the exodus of Irish nationals, leaving to find a new life in America that the White Star line saw a business opportunity.
The Titanic was not the only vessel on this run. It is commonly thought that she was a luxury liner but the real trade was in the emigration from the Emerald Isle.
The cabins were poky and small and following the dispersal of the Irish to America via Ellis Island, these cabins were all stripped out of their scanty furnishings and used for freight back to England.
Following the sinking of the Titanic there was the usual board of enquiry. It found that the vessel had been incorrectly classified and this led to a major revision of the construction rules for such vessels.
All this from the humble potato.
Nice article — I’m consistently enjoying the writing on this site.
My high school history passed over the Irish Potato Famine with about the same depth as this article’s sentence, “So reliable was [the potato] that in Ireland […] a simple potato fungus in 1845 was able to cause […] “total and utter catastrophe killing over a million people and depopulating the island by a quarter through death and emigration.””
I know the Irish Potato Famine was bad, but I’ve recently seen some mentions that there was plenty of other food available in Ireland at the time, but in the form of crops and animals primarily grown for export. The Irish poor could not match the market prices for the export items, so that food was all sent away.
While the simplistic perspective provides a good lesson about the risks of monocultural crops, I wonder if there might be a “Damn Interesting” story to be found in a wider lense/deeper dive look at the Irish Potato Famine.
Mention of Titanic above reminded me that Parmentier also received one other little moment of fame. One of the side dishes on the First Class menu on Titanic was ‘Parmentier potatoes’.
Wait, why “French Fries” then? Or is that a totally different story?
Mr. Macfarlane has surpassed himself – superb article.
On a different note, articles about hunger fascinate me. In a short time, Europe and the U.S. have gone from worrying about having enough to eat to worrying about being overweight. We are living in wonderful times.
And yesterday was the day to appreciate this country’s abundance. I thank God every day that I live when and where I do.
I am still thankful.
Checking back in.