We all love a good ‘What If’ in history don’t we? Is it true that a British sniper let Corporal Hitler off the hook during World War One? Didn’t Europe almost fall to Islam in the eighth century? Was Kyoto saved from nuclear annihilation because Henry Stimson went on his honeymoon there? Well here is another one for you. It is admittedly not pretty but certainly more tasty. What if the potato never made it to Europe? Other than menus being slightly less diverse, bloated cities would have been unsustainable and famine would have been a regular occurrence, with one notable exception of course.
Just as the Andes are the backbone of South America, so the potato was the backbone of the Incan civilisation. When encountered by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s they noted how large yields of this misshapen tuber could be grown almost anywhere and were eaten by almost anyone. They sensed an opportunity and grandly unveiled the vegetable to a rather underwhelmed audience at the Spanish court.
Although any sailor who ate them did not contract scurvy and any farmer who grew them did not go hungry, old methods die hard and few people took to them for centuries. The upper class palate did not welcome this development so they were passed down through the middle classes to the peasantry who saw no benefit other than to grow them to feed their animals. So other than for sailors, for decades they served mainly as cattle feed across Europe. The great Encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment noted them as “tasteless and starchy… reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.” A two star review at best.
But as the European population grew so did the threat of famine. Enlightened rulers realised that in the potato lay the key to a healthy population, but more importantly to a cheap surplus to be used in times of want. After all, revolutions rarely occur on full stomachs. So the potato was publicised to the peasantry as a solution to their woes. But still they remained suspicious. This tuber was ignored by dogs and wasn’t even mentioned in the bible! It was time for some clever French marketing.
A French chemist named Parmentier had survived on potatoes alone when captured during the Seven Years War and tirelessly stated that no longer would people riot over bread if they simply ate potatoes. He came up with the ingenious idea of planting 40 acres of the crop outside Paris. Nothing new here. However he ordered that they be placed under a 24 hour armed guard. Suddenly the locals were interested. What valuable commodity could be guarded so heavily? It was a resounding success. The guards ‘accidentally’ allowed several thieves to pinch potatoes for personal use. Word spread of the culinary ugly duckling throughout Europe.
The bulbous tuber soon supported the rural and urban peasantry alike. Europe’s population soared as the black hole of industrial cities sucked in workers in their thousands. They were now feasting on the plant which yielded more food than wheat ever could. From soups sipped on the streets of Paris to fish and chips sold in the heaving courts of London, the potato conquered all. As populations continued to grow, so too did their reliance on this one crop.
This was the sad case in Poland, Ukraine and Ireland whose farmers eagerly forgot other crops and packed their fields with potatoes. With no central planning this reliance on one crop was a disaster waiting to happen. Ireland was the unfortunate victim and her population is yet to recover.
When the blight arrived from North America it swept and plundered the bloated farms within days. Healthy crops became putrid black slime overnight. The sceptre of famine hung over Irish heads and with a British overlord committed to a free market economy, little was done. One million died and one million fled as the staple food struggled to recover from the merciless attack.
But recover it did and became a regular tenant to farms around the world, largely thanks to war. As vast armies trekked the globe in the twentieth century, farmers from Romania to Rwanda planted potatoes. Why? Because they bloom underground and remain hidden to the passer-by who would otherwise help himself to a nutritious smash and grab meal. As war ended the crop remained and today is the second largest food crop behind only rice. Russia with it’s huge tracts of not-so-fertile land is the largest producer and America with it’s not-so-small portion sizes is the largest consumer.
So the potato finally conquered the world. But what if it didn’t? What if it died out with the Incan civilisation? What if it never made it across the Atlantic? Well Keith Lemon would be down at least one show-stopping punchline…