Loving the Potato

From humble vegetable to national symbol, it may be the most variously useful food item ever.

Des glaneuses (The Gleaners), Jean-François Millet 1857 (Wikimedia Commons)

Only with difficulty can we separate the potato from association with the soil. What other supermarket item sits on the shelf still muddied, looking like the skin of a farmer? To think of the potato is to conjure toiling peasants like Jean-François Millet. When a restaurant serves up fries that resemble even slightly the vegetable they were cut from, they call them “rustic,” or “country style” as if each chip were transported by time machine from some pre-industrial golden age.

All of which would have caused some dismay to Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the potato’s great promoter in directoire France, for whom the humble tater was a “revolutionary food”—the very essence of modernity. While his fellow communards were decapitating everyone and decimating everything, Parmentier was growing potatoes in the royal gardens and working on his mashing skills. During his lifetime, Parmentier was made inspector general of the French health service and first pharmacist to the army. Today he is commemorated by a whole slew of recipes bearing his name, each one a different combination of meat and veg with puréed pommes de terre.

Antoine Parmentier (Wikimedia Commons)

It was only thanks to his capture during the Seven Years War that Parmentier even encountered the particular root with which his name would be forever linked in culinary history. Force-fed the things while prisoner in a Prussian jail, the young apothecary recognised the spud’s efficacy as a source of nourishment for dysentery sufferers—knowledge that would later win him the coveted prize of the Académie de Besançon. Up until that point, the potato was prohibited by order of the French parliament; guilty by association with its close cousin, the deadly nightshade.

My own Prussian jail cell was a university halls of residence in South London where the modest provision of a student loan pressed me to stockpile spuds in great quantities. At that time, my local supermarket sold five kilograms for scarcely more than a pound. These great sacks came in austere packaging with colorfully frank slogans emblazoned across them in a childish handwriting font. “No great lookers,” they cheerfully admitted, but still “beautiful mashed.” Such was their meager promise.

Spurning the caveats of this label, over the course of my degree I learned potato preparations of almost unimaginable diversity. I roasted them and röstied them; stewed them, sautéed, and scalloped them; baked them, braised them, boiled them, and boulangèred them. I pressed potatoes into salads and soups, into gratins and galettes, tortillas, tarts and tandooris. The sheer variety of uses I found for the unloved root sufficed to give the lie to the plodding litany of Varda’s song. But what fascinated me the most were the strange tentacular growths they would sprout, like alien flora, when left too long to fester in the cupboard.

In the 16th century, when the potato first came to Europe from across the Atlantic, such a fixation would have been regarded as prurience bordering on perversion. The priesthood of the Elizabethan era eyed the potato with suspicion, seeing in its bulbous shape a source of undue licentiousness. There is potentially a whole ars erotica of the potato which we might trace to the disquiet of these renaissance prelates. Consider the language used by experts to describe different varieties: the “moist, firm flesh” of the Purple Majesty or the “deep pink skin and firm texture” of the Desirée. Even the names sound like adult film stars. I once saw “erotic potato prints” for sale on eBay; spied web forums discussing the sexual imagery of potatoes in poetry; and of course, confirming the unerring veracity of the notorious Rule 34, the internet boasts site after site of potato-based porn.

Screenshot from the web game Pornstar or Potato.

What Queen Bess’s bishops didn't know but I discovered while studying for my bachelor’s degree is that the tatty is one of very few vegetables that one could live solely off without fear of malnutrition—providing you accompany your spuds with a glass of milk. This is a fact rarely acknowledged. Many still believe the myth that all the nutrients are held in the skin, exhibiting a suspicion toward the flesh with long roots in Christian theology. The potato, we are frequently told when totting up our five a day, doesn't count.

The philosopher Jacques Rancière refers to those social groups forced outside the political process and systematically denied a voice as the “part of no part.” This part of no part is quintessentially revolutionary because, for Rancière, politics is an event that occurs when such excluded subjects stand up and demand recognition. Being a French Marxist intellectual, Rancière tends to refer in such terms to industrial workers or illegal immigrants. But were his interests turned less to economics and aesthetics and more towards culinary matters, he may well have favored the potato as just such a part of no part in the kitchen. It is the veg that is not one; tuber sacer.


Had he done so, Rancière would certainly not have been the first to recognise the revolutionary potential of the humble spud. Following Parmentier, potatoes have been pressed into the service of revolutionary governments and socialist régimes practically every time they have arisen. Charles Darwin, on a trip to Patagonia two decades after the death of Parmentier, would remark upon the extraordinary adaptability of the Solarum Tuberosum to almost any habitat or climate (barring, that is, the dank larders of a college dorm room). This universality, coupled with its nutritional value and extraordinarily high yield per hectare, has endeared the tuber to proletarian dictatorships throughout the 20th century. “A sociable plant,” Darwin called them. More like socialist.

In Russia, potatoes formed a staple part of the national diet since the days of Peter the Great. But as communism spread across the Eastern Bloc, so did Russian cuisine, with potato-heavy dishes such as borscht and draniki pancakes, forming a major part of the national diet of the whole U.S.S.R. A comparison of the food in North and South Azerbaijan demonstrates clearly the effect of the spread of communism on national diet, with the formerly soviet North Azerbaijan still featuring potatoes heavily in its diet compared to their scant inclusion in the diet of its historically more liberal southern neighbor.

Likewise, in Cuba potatoes have formed part of the standard ration of every citizen since the revolution, figuring heavily in dishes such as ajiaco and rabo encendido. It’s one possible explanation for the avoidance of all-out famine during Cuba’s "special period" after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In China, potato production doubled in the year’s immediately following Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the country has since grown to be the world’s biggest potato producer. Even in North Korea in the last decade, Kim Jong-il called for a “leap forward” in potato production.

Kim Jong-il inspects a potato (Kim Jong-il Looking At Things)

In the West, the language of politics remains infused with potatoes, with everything from milk to gun control being described as a “political hot potato”. And since Dan Quayle’s “potatoe” misspelling became part of the wider disintegration of his credibility that led to election defeat, spuds have persistently found themselves causing controversy. Former Polish president, Lech Kacynski, cancelled a summit meeting with the German chancellor in 2006 after a German newspaper, Die Tageszeitung, compared him and his prime minister brother, Jaroslaw, to a pair of potatoes.

Most famously, in 2003 the cafeteria at the U.S. House of Representatives removed all reference to “French” fries (preferring “Freedom Fries”) in protest at France’s lack of support for the Iraq invasion. But when, in the Autumn of 2011, Barack Obama proposed banning Tater Tots from school lunches, it was the Republicans who rushed to the spud’s defence, citing equal rights for tubers.

One of many menus changed in support of "Freedom Fries," circa 2003 (Flickr/André Mouraux)

For some, the potato is a symbol of America itself—harking back to a letter written by John Adams to his wife Abigail on the very eve of American independence. “Let us eat potatoes and water,” wrote the future president in 1774 in a call to modesty and simple pleasures against the extravagant frivolity of the British aristocracy. Today, the potato is the most important vegetable crop in the country, with per capita consumption at around 139 pounds. Harvard professor of epidemiology and nutrition, Dr. William Willett, author of a study into the negative effects of a too-potato-centric diet, claimed the “potato is a religious commodity in America” so dear is it to the nation’s self-identity.

The original Mr. Potato Head (1952)

In 1949, a Brooklyn-born toymaker named George Lerner first shoved plastic features into the flesh of a root vegetable and created the trinket that Bill Bryson would cite as candidate for “the most stupid or disappointing toy” of his Des Moines upbringing. Maybe Mr. Potato Head has never been such a “cool toy”; but as we learnt from Toy Story, he is a psychoanalyst among playthings, confidently diagnosing Woody’s “laser envy”.

At first glance we might suspect Lerner’s creation of having rather more to do with Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. After all, it was Mattel whose mid-'50s TV advertisements for the tuberous toy first aimed specifically at children themselves. Where once toys called in vain to mums and dads of their qualities and benefits, Mr. Potato Head ads spoke directly to kids and in their own language, inventing in the process every advertiser’s dream—and every parent’s nightmare—the now infamous pester power.

No doubt uncle Sigmund would, however, have approved of the implication behind this spirited spud that one’s personhood is something constructed, something fungible, prey to external forces and all manner of traumas. And is there not finally a perfect illustration of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism in the notion that such a lumpen legume might be lent a charm and character all its own by the simple addition of a few mere flecks of branded plastic?

So when Michael Pollan asks, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?” Think of Parmentier, think of Darwin, think of Mr. Potato Head. Pollanʹs confession in his Botany of Desire that he was seduced by the “buttery yellow flesh” of a particular spud would have come as little surprise to the moral guardians of centuries past. They would have merely shaken their heads and muttered something about the devilʹs knobbly bits. Long before Monsanto made Frankenfoods of our fries, the potato had long been a crop of which Victor Frankenstein himself would have been wont to cry, “Itʹs alive! Itʹs alive!”

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things