- Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent
In the last two decades, a new crop of books from the field of food studies have explored the historical significance of a variety of edibles. Among the more intriguing examples of this genre have been Betty Fussell’s The Story of Corn (University of New Mexico Press, 2005 reprint of 1992 edition), Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Walker, 1997), Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History (Walker, 2002), and Andrew Dalby’s Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices (University of California, 2000). John Reader’s Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent is a worthy addition to the growing body of works exploring the ways in which foodstuffs have shaped world history. Reader’s account is both more and less than the title might suggest. More because the author offers much historical background that initially seems peripheral to the potato’s history but ultimately provides essential context; less because he offers a selection of vignettes rather than a connected narrative history. Yet this book works well both as a history of the world’s favorite tuber and as an examination of the benefits and the perils created by the introduction of an alternative staple into the food supply of selected societies. Within this relatively slender volume is much food for thought on human management and mismanagement of food resources, seen from a potato eye’s perspective.
Reader chooses a geographical structure for his narrative, dividing the text into three main sections each composed of a series of short chapters. He begins with the South American homeland of the potato, then turns his attention to its spread throughout Europe, and concludes with a look at the morphing of the potato into a world staple. His first section begins with a brief excursion into the potato’s potential to feed future astronauts before turning to the Andean highlands to explore Incan and Spanish rule over a potato-dependent peasant labor force. The author then delves into the potato’s nutritional value, its domestication, and its origins in alpine South America before returning to the [End Page 372] role the potato played in the creation of the Andean empires. Potatoes fed the laborers working the mines and haciendas so well that landowners were able to profit from this source of labor well into the 1970s. This first section of the book establishes Reader’s central argument, to which he frequently returns throughout the book: the paradoxical nature of the potato as both blessing and curse for its cultivators and consumers. The potato is highly nutritious; its high yields per acre richly reward the labor expended on its cultivation. The introduction of the potato as a peasant staple invariably fueled population growth as better nourished women were able to bear more children. In turn, ruling elites from the Incas to twentieth-century dictators were able to exploit readily available pools of reasonably well-fed laborers, courtesy of the prolific tuber. Reader sees clear social distinctions between potato eaters and noneaters, citing the Spaniard’s long rejection of indigenous foods and their attempts to recreate a European food culture in a relatively hostile environment as evidence for his assertion that the potato was primarily a peasant food.
In the second section, Reader investigates the mystery of the potato’s arrival in Europe and makes a plausible case for the Canary Islands as its first home in the Old World. As in South America, the potato’s ability to feed multitudes would lead to its eventual adoption as a staple among various European communities. Improved levels of nutrition and population growth soon occurred in those regions, although its initial reputation as a promoter of lust and leprosy made some potential consumers cautious. He then discusses the economic and social conditions in Europe that led to the adoption of the potato as a substitute for more costly wheat. Reader bolsters his argument with a timely quotation from William McNeill on the overall importance of the...