It’s National Potato Month! Today, we’ll take a deep dive into the potato sack to share some fascinating insights about these spectacular spuds.
The potato has some amazing food science behind it. Also known as the Solanum tuberosum, the potato belongs to the solanaceae family of flowering plants. It originated and was first domesticated in the Andes Mountains of South America (hence why the Peruvians cultivate over 4,000 varieties!).
The potato is the third most important food crop in the world after rice and wheat in terms of human consumption. More than a billion people worldwide eat potatoes!
The potato is vegetatively propagated, meaning that a new plant can be grown from a piece of potato. The new plant can produce 5-20 new tubers which will be genetic clones of the mother seed plant. Potato plants also produce flowers and berries that contain 100-400 botanical seeds. These can be planted to produce new tubers, which will be genetically different from the mother plant.
Potatoes can grow from sea level up to more than 15,000 feet above sea level, from southern Chile to Greenland. One hectare of potato can yield two to four times the food quantity of grain crops. Potatoes produce more food per unit of water than any other major crop and are up to seven times more efficient in using water than cereals. They are produced in over 100 countries worldwide. (For more potato facts, go here.)
An Ancient and Well-Traveled Food
The first cultivated potato crops were planted and harvested by the Inca Indians in Peru about 10,000 years ago. The potato played a significant role in the Incas’ diet, and when the Spanish Conquistadors conquered their lands in 1536, they too discovered this flavorful food. Not long after, they introduced the potato to Europe.
Before the end of the sixteenth century, families of Basque sailors began to cultivate potatoes along the Biscay coast of northern Spain. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589 on the 40,000 acres of land near Cork. By the late 1620’s, the potato had spread to the rest of Europe.
European farmers found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate than other staple crops, such as wheat and oats. They also learned that potatoes contained most of the vitamins needed for sustenance and that each acre of land cultivated land yielded enough potatoes to feed about 10 people.
In the 1840s a major outbreak of potato blight—a devastating plant disease—swept through Europe and wiped out the potato crop in many countries. The Irish working class lived largely on potatoes, and when the blight reached Ireland, their main staple food disappeared. Over the course of the famine, almost one million people died from starvation or disease. Another one million people left Ireland, mostly for Canada and the United States.
Potatoes in the USA
Potatoes were introduced to the Colonies in 1621 when the Governor of Bermuda, Nathaniel Butler, sent two large cedar chests containing potatoes and other vegetables to Governor Francis Wyatt of Virginia at Jamestown. The first permanent potato patches in North America were established in 1719, most likely near Londonderry (Derry), NH, by Scotch-Irish immigrants. From there, the crop spread across the country.
Idaho, the present-day largest producer of potatoes, actually did not begin growing potatoes until 1836, when missionaries moved west in an effort to teach the native tribes to grow crops instead of relying upon hunting and gathering methods. However, it wasn’t until 1872 when the Russet Burbank variety was developed that the Idaho potato industry began to flourish.
Snack Food Origins
In 1853, railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt complained that his potatoes were cut too thick and sent them back to the kitchen at a fashionable resort in Saratoga Springs, NY. To spite his haughty guest, Chef George Crum sliced some potatoes paper thin, fried them in hot oil, salted and served them. Surprisingly, Vanderbilt loved his “Saratoga Crunch Chips,” and potato chips have been popular ever since.
Surprising and Fun Facts…
- A medium baked potato has more potassium (925 mg) than a banana (425 mg) and is fat free
- U.S. potatoes are grown in 36 states
- Per capita consumption of potatoes is 112 lbs. per year (not including sweet potatoes)
- Japan is the biggest importer of U.S. potatoes
- Potatoes are an excellent, low-fat source of carbohydrates, with one-fourth the calories of bread.
- A single medium sized boiled potato contains about half the daily adult requirement of vitamin C, as well as significant amounts of iron, potassium, fiber, and zinc.
Odd and inspired uses of the humble potato
The Incas had many uses for potatoes other than dinner:
- Placed raw slices on broken bones to promote healing
- Carried them to prevent rheumatism
- Ate with other foods to prevent indigestion.
- Measured time: by correlating units of time by how long it took for potatoes to cook.
Various folk remedies recommend using potatoes:
- Treat facial blemishes by washing your face daily with cool potato juice.
- Treat frostbite or sunburn by applying raw grated potato or potato juice to the affected area.
- Help a toothache by carrying a potato in your pocket.
- Ease a sore throat by putting a slice of baked potato in a stocking and tying it around your throat.
- Ease aches and pains by rubbing the affected area with the water potatoes have been boiled in.
Go enjoy some of these über tubers! Happy Foodie Friday!
And, of course, for something a little weird…
Fast food fans will recognize that despite the ubiquity of french fries in drive-thru fare, only one mainstream fast food restaurant offers baked potatoes.
Here’s an enlightening video from Thrillist about how and why Wendy’s came to offer this alternative potato option!