TOWARDS PINK POTATOES
BY: ELIYHO MATZ
FORMERLY: SITTING BOOK
“A present-day teacher of philosophy doesn’t select food for his pupil with the aim of flattering his taste, but with the aim of changing it.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Peter Winch, translator
[Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980]; p. 17e.
The potato has been part of the diet of Europeans and North Americans for a long time, at least 400 years. This tuber can be baked, boiled or fried, and I assume that there are hundreds of other ways to prepare potatoes for human and non-human consumption. It seems that all modern life evolved with the vegetable tuber called “potato.” An old Yiddish folksong describes the weekly existence as including the daily consumption of potatoes; not a single day passes without the “kartofle,” or “bulbus.”
The potato enters into the European consciousness via the Peruvian Andes. (I am not going into the famous potato wars between Peru and Chile, each claiming the origin of the potato for its own sovereign state.) The Spanish Conquistadors brought the potato to Europe: Spain, France, Ireland and the rest of Europe from the early 1600’s. The Andes’ high elevation provided the ancient Incas with the agricultural opportunity to develop various varieties of potatoes that the ancient people of the region learned how to preserve so they could survive during the cold winter season. If historically we need to define the Inca civilization, we may as well call it “a potato civilization.” Of course, the Incas are no longer in existence; after a few thousand years of cultivating potatoes and potato products they mysteriously disappeared. Is it possible that the potato had anything to do with their disappearance?
The potato plant belongs to the “nightshade” family of plants, which indicates that the leaf of the plant is poisonous. Is it possible that the tuber itself is a bit poisonous? Or that it has some mind-altering chemicals in it that we do not know much about? According to botanist Judith Sumner, “the thin-walled cells that compose potatoes contain thousands of amyloplasts,” and potatoes were boiled for hours in order to get rid of the poisons.” Furthermore, “the early suspicion that potatoes are poisonous is in part correct; potato cells exposed to light synthesize solanine, a glycoalkaloid that interferes with activity of cholinesterase, and enzyme associated with activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.” [Judith Sumner, American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620–1900 (Portland: Timber Press, 2004), pp. 91–92]. The fact is, we do not really know much about the implications of the chemistry of the potato, and the Incas are not here to provide us with details about their historical/gastronomical association with potatoes. We can only guess.
Throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Europeans perfected the production of potatoes with few obstacles. Bearing in mind the tragic Irish famine that is associated with potatoes, no such events appeared to happen on the European continent of such magnitude. As a matter of fact, because the potato provided such good nutrition to the continent’s inhabitants, the European population more than quadrupled over the past 200 years. “European populations increased in size as peasants began growing potatoes for their own use….” [Sumner, p. 89]. Moreover, according to historian Tom Kemp, “expansion of demand for agricultural produce, both within Germany and abroad, in the period after 1815 enabled the reorganized agrarian system to prosper.” He continues to say that a combination of political, social and agricultural factors in Germany, including the cultivation of the potato, “…brought a demographic revolution to Germany. Population rose by 59 per cent between 1816 and 1865. In 1820 it had been 25 million…and by 1910 it was almost 65 million. [Tom Kemp, Industrialization in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Longman Group Ltd: New York, 1985), p.85.] As Catherine Gallagher summarized from the work of David Ricardo, “You can make nothing of potatoes but more people, who…will only make more potatoes” [Catherine Gallagher & Stephen Greenblat, Practicing New Historicism (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2001), pp. 133–134].
It is obvious that the leaders in the production of potatoes were the Germans. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States imported huge quantities of potatoes from Germany. American researchers of that period Grubb and Guilford, reported that “during the season of 1911–1912, the United States has imported large quantities of potatoes from Europe. The [US] crop of 1911 was a good many million bushels short of the needs of the nation….’Germany, with an area not more than twice that of Colorado, can and does produce fully two billion bushels of potatoes annually….’”[Eugene H. Grubb and W.S. Guilford, The Potato: A Compilation of Information from Every Available Source (New York: Doubleday Co., 1913], p.3, 5). The Russians and the Poles kept up their own productions and ultimately the potato evolved into a liquid called “vodka.” Variations of spirits likewise appeared in diverse locales of Europe, thus the German potato “schnapps” and its similar versions all over the continent. Cheap food, inexpensive alcohol, and intense sex brought the European population to record growth, then in actuality to intensive and extensive national wars. I would like to propose that the causes of World Wars I and II were directly related to extensive potato production and consumption. One can even attach to the madness of these wars the secret influence of the potato’s ability to bring about mind-change (as mentioned above by Judith Sumner), of which we know very little. After all this is told, the reader is possibly puzzled by these grand strikes on the white canvas producing a watercolor of a picture that might seem fantastic: the Europeans’ consumption of potatoes, which led to their high rate of reproduction and an obsession with drinking potato alcohol, thus causing them to be a bit out of control mentally and producing wars that no one could manage and that begot millions of casualties and tragedies of huge proportions.
Since the history of Jews has been my interest for many years, I will take a detour here to talk about East European Jewry. The introduction of the potato into the diet of Eastern and Central Europe, southern Russia and Poland, where Jews had resided for at least one thousand years, resulted in a quick rise in the general population, and in the Jewish population as well. It is difficult to explain the numerical rise of the East European Jewish population without taking into account the cultivation of potatoes in the vast fields of the Ukraine, Poland and Russia where the Pale settlement Jews endured over many generations. In sort of a fantastical way inspired by a fabled miracle, the potato entered Jewish religious life via the latke, or potato pancake, which has been consumed voraciously on the Chanukah holiday since its introduction in the mid-18th century. Hopefully, no one is naïve enough to suggest that the Maccabees in ancient times ate potato latkes, or levivot, or any other potato products. So we eat potatoes, and we multiply. It is difficult otherwise to figure out the increase in the Jewish population without exploring the arrival of potatoes in Eastern Europe. Jews were in tune with the other Europeans. Of course, the drastic increase of the European population led to an increase in violence in general, and to the infamous anti-Semitism in particular, which came to a boiling point in the 1880’s and caused Jews to start immigrating to America and to other Central European states. Jewish Haskalah (education) and various ideologies, among them Zionism, evolved in Eastern Europe at that time. According to historian Barbara Kreiger, a Jewish man by the name of Meshullam who lived in Palestine and converted to Christianity in the 1850’s “…planted the potatoes, which some travelers assert were unknown in Palestine at the time….The success of Meshullam’s potatoes was a momentous occasion…” [Barbara Kreiger, Divine Expectations: An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), p. 45] The introduction of the potato to what was then known as Palestine should be considered for its impact on the future population growth and the mental condition of the Palestinians and eventually the Zionist settlers who arrived in the 1890’s, and on the future conflict in the region.
By the early 1900’s, the potato revolution on the European continent was in full swing, and eventually, among other things, led to the Holocaust. But here an explanation is needed. The German love-affair with potatoes and potato production is a well known fact. The largest producers of potato crops by the turn of the 20th century, the Germans developed multiple uses of potatoes as food products, animal products, and alcohol and became the world’s largest consumers of potato products, all the while totally unaware of the consequences the potato would hold for them. For this population, i.e., one that was not hungry but rather well fed with potatoes, followed into the rise of Nazism led by Adolf Hitler, who advocated, among many other crazy ideas, lebensraum (in this case meaning expansion into the vast fields of Poland, the Ukraine and Russia) and the extermination of Jews. Of course, the conquest of the vast territories of Poland and Russia, especially the region where Jews were settled, ended with the Holocaust and the possibility of the Nazis (Germans) to grow more potatoes in this lebensraum. It may appear to be a bit naïve to look at the German experience during World War II and link it to potatoes, but it is inevitable in my mind not to ignore this connection. As a matter of fact, it is worthwhile to look at Gunter Grass’ renowned book and subsequently the great movie The Tin Drum to realize that his story begins with two people having (nonconsensual) sex in a potato field. I am not sure how Grass’ conscious and subconscious viewed the field of potatoes in the creation of this scene. Of course, Grass is controversial, especially recently, with his memoir, Peeling the Onion [Michael Henry Heim, translator (New York: Harcourt, 2007)], in which he admitted that as a youth, age 15 or 16, he became an SS volunteer. In any case, in the memoir, which I think represents a decent way for him to ask for forgiveness for his participation in the Nazi era experiment, he mentions potatoes at least 15 times. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for him to call his book “Peeling Potatoes” and thus close a chapter in German national and personal shame and consciousness.
Fast-food and slow food restaurants serve huge amounts of fried, baked and mashed potatoes. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the largest producers of potatoes are the Chinese and the Indians. We are not going to analyze here these nations’ mental conditions with such vast production and consumption of potatoes. There are a few more issues concerning potatoes. The American society is absolutely committed to the consumption of potatoes. In a vast product line as well as distribution, the potato has had an impact on our waistlines as well as our mental capabilities of thinking. Since the potato belongs to the night-shade family of plants, in which the leaves are poisonous, is it possible that the spud that produces the leaves has some poison in it, or, as botanist Judith Sumner and others suggest, at least some kind of mind-altering chemicals? Is it possible that in the future we will be able to produce organically a new type of potato that will be pink and will not have the toxic chemicals associated with the current potato? The future is pink.
I would like to apologize to the readers of this article for not having the time to use major libraries in my research on potatoes. Following is a short list of sources of interest about potatoes and potato usage:
Adam, Hans Karl. The International Wine and Food Society’s Guide to German Cookery. Publisher: Bonanza Books, 1967.
Bernand, Carmen. The Incas: People of the Sun. Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Bushnell, G.H.S. Ancient Peoples and Places: Peru.
Conan, Terence and Kroll, Maria. The Vegetable Book. New York: Crescent Books, 1976.
Lemnis, Maria and Vitry, Henryk. Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table. Warsaw: Interpress Publishers, 1979.
Midgley, John. The Goodness of Potatoes and Root Vegetables. New York: Random House, 1992.
Nelson, Kay Shaw. The Eastern European Cookbook. New York: Dover Publications, Inc; 1977.
Roberts, Annie Lise. Cornucopia: The Lore of Fruits and Vegetables. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1998.
Rysia. Old Warsaw Cook Book. New York: Roy Publishers, 1958.
For the past eighteen years I have resided in the Berkshires of Massachusetts in the town of Great Barrington, and I must apologize for my fixation on potatoes. However, I always remind myself of another author who lived in this region many years ago who had his own fixation. His was on whales, his name Herman Melville. It seems like this mountainous region produces writers with fixations. Unlike Melville, who did not tend his own whales, I do grow my own potatoes, especially Yukon Gold.