The potato is a relatively underappreciated as a vegetable – seemingly bland, associated with one of the largest famines in history, and not usually seen in high-end culinary cuisine. However, Americans consume about 140 pounds of potatoes every year, and the potato is the world’s fourth largest food crop – making it quite popular! The Grow Local team researched some interesting facts about the potato and its beginnings in the Andes Mountains and how the potato become one of the most popular food crops to date. First, read up on how to properly plant potatoes using a potato bought from your local organic grocery store, and then follow potatoes throughout history and learn about their fascinating rise to popularity.
The Popular Potato
How to Plant Potatoes
- Obtain organic potatoes from an organic grocery store or an organic nursery. Many times regular potatoes that you find at a grocery store have been irradiated and will not be able to produce sprouts.
- Allow the potato to grow “eyes.” The little buds that begin to sprout on the potato tuber will eventually turn into a new potato plant!
- 1-2 days before planting, cut the potato into quarters, allowing at least two eyes to remain on each piece. Let the pieces sit before planting so that they can form a protective layer around the outside for moisture retention and rot resistance. These are called “seed potatoes.”
- Plant seed potatoes with the eye side up, 1 foot apart and about 4 inches deep in well-drained, loose soil. Harvest after 10 weeks.
- Make sure to plant after the last threat of frost.
South American Origins
The Incas of ancient Peru were the first to cultivate potatoes more than 7,000 years ago. Potatoes are exceptionally well-adapted to being grown in the high altitudes of the Andes, and the Incas utilized the potatoes for many different and unique uses.
- Incans would place raw slices on broken bones to promote healing.
- They carried potatoes to prevent rheumatism, and in order to help a toothache, Incans would carry a potato in their pocket.
- Potatoes were actually used to measure time by correlating units of time by how long it took for potatoes to cook.
- Potatoes can also be used to treat frostbite or sunburn by applying raw grated potato or potato juice to the affected area.
Irish Potato Famine
Because the potato tubers travel well, were cheap, and prevent scurvy (because of their Vitamin C levels), they were brought to Europe in the 16th century as food for sailors that were exploring the New World. It spread throughout Europe during the following centuries, and eventually became a staple food for the people of Ireland. The tuber was a safeguard against crop failure and starvation and was widely grown in the country, until the 1840s when a major outbreak of potato blight struck potato fields. After multiple waves of the fungus killing off potato plants, more than 90% of the potato crop had been annihilated. Famine set in and diseases spread during this time, and the people of Ireland began their immigration to the United States – over one million died from starvation or disease and another one million people emigrated from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine.
The Accidental Creation of French Fries and the Potato Chip
The potato was shunned by the aristocracy of Europe and was regarded as a food for the poor as a defense against famine. However, a chef for King Louis Phillippe accidentally created the famous pommes soufflées (puffed potatoes) when he plunged fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the king was late for dinner. The food item was quickly brought to French street food vendors and increased the popularity of the potato in Europe. Soon after and across the ocean in New York, a chef named George Crum was employed at an elegant resort restaurant and tended to a crabby customer who complained that the French fries were served too thick. Crum decided to get his revenge by slicing the potatoes too thin for even a fork to skewer. Of course the plan backfired, and the guest fell in love with the paper-thin potato chips that were created. The world is now infatuated with both the potato chip and French fries, and the United States is the fourth largest grower of the potato.
Other Fun Facts about Potatoes
- During the Alaskan Klondike gold rush (1897-1898), potatoes were practically worth their weight in gold. Potatoes were valued for their vitamin C. And gold, at that time, was more plentiful than nutritious foods!
- In October 1995, the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space. NASA and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, created the technology with the goal of feeding astronauts on long space voyages, and eventually, feeding future space colonies.
- The world’s only Potato Museum is located in Washington D.C. It contains over 2,000 potato artifacts, including antique harvesting tools, an 1893 potato flask (a mold for making ice cream potatoes), potato ties, and a 1903 Parker Brothers game called “The Potato Race.”