Today I should like to discuss solanum tuberosum, the common potato. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s remark on the weather, everybody eats it, but no one knows much about it. After you read this column, your knowledge of the world’s most important food crop will improve.
It’s a humble plant, spending most of its life underground, hidden from human eyes, until it is called to glory and immolation on the altar of gastronomy. Humble though it may be, it has shaped history. It may have given the United States at least two presidents and probably set the German democratic process back a generation in the 19th century.
Believed to have originated in the Andes, it came to the attention of the Spanish when they saw the Incas eating it. They proceeded to use it as food on their ships. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have introduced the potato to Ireland in 1588. If so, he played a part in the making of President Kennedy. For, as I understand it, some of Kennedy’s forbears immigrated to the U.S. when the potato famine hit Europe in the 1840s.
I also understand that some of President Eisenhower’s ancestors immigrated from Germany to the U.S. for the same reason. If anyone challenges those statements, I surrender without a fight.
I recall reading in a history book that the European potato blight delayed the progress of democracy in Germany, because many of those who would have supported the movement either died in the famine or immigrated to the U.S. Again, I surrender to any challenge without a fight.
The potato was introduced into England by Sir John Hawkins in 1563 but was neglected until Sir Francis Drake reintroduced it in 1586. In 1593 it was brought to France.
The potato became a staple food right away, except in France, because of its nutritional value. It’s high in calories, as we who love our spuds know only too well, and in Vitamins A, B and C and such necessary minerals as phosphorus, potassium, calcium and iron.
It was the Irish who brought the potato to the U.S., when they came to New Hampshire in 1719. When the tuber came to Japan, I don’t know; but whoever brought it made a mistake. For Japanese potatoes are too watery. Ask a French chef about them, and he will roll his eyes and throw up his hands in horror.
The potato has an interesting history in France. When it was first introduced, it was thought to cause leprosy and therefore was unfit for human consumption. Then Antoine-August Parmentier came along and began to write pamphlets about its edibility. But even they didn’t make the French take to it. Then came a period of food scarcity in 1787, and Parmentier saw his chance. He obtained 50 acres of poor land near Paris and grew potatoes on it.
Then with the help of the government, he laid a trap. Knowing how covetous the Parisians were, he had his land closely guarded by soldiers during the day. At sundown, the soldiers went off duty, leaving the fields unsecored. The Parisians then would sneak in and steal the potatoes for the sake of taking what seemed to be forbidden. Since there were enough Parmentier pamphlets around telling about the tuber, they began to use it in their kitchens and, presto!, the potato became popular in France.
French culinary inventiveness subsequently took over so that today there are more potato recipes in French cuisine than any other. I counted 57 in Escoffier.
There are three basic ways to cook potatoes: boiling, baking and frying. It’s the last, in the form of french fries, that is the most popular as well as my favorite and the reason for this dissertation. I want to warn the reader that french fries can be one of the most indigestible forms of food.
I have just come from Hinterland, USA, which stretches from the West Coast to the East Coast. The people of Hinterland, USA, are wonderful. They’re warm, pleasant, helpful, sympathetic, friendly— well, just great. But the food is awful! So when I go to Hinterland, USA, I order meat and potatoes to be on the safe side: french fries with steak and baked potatoes with roast beef.
On this last trip I seldom found french fries cooked as they should be. Most of the time they were disgraceful, and I finally took to ordering baked potatoes all the way. They’re less risky.
I found that the french fries were usually refried. By that I mean the chefs would precook them in fat, take them out and, when an order came fry them in hotter fat. The potatoes would take on a crispy outer coat, but the inside would be greasy and the potato itself limp. I don’t know why the chefs don’t fry the potatoes to completion in hot fat, as they should. Perhaps they think they’re saving time. They may be, but they’re destroying the potatoes.
Here’s what my Lareusse Gastronomique has to say about pommes frites or fried potatoes (in France, of course, they’re not called french fries):
“This is the most popular form of potatoes eaten; also the least digestible. If the frying is carried out correctly, at the right temperature (about 180 degrees Centigrade), the potatoes should be crisp, very pleasant to the taste and easier to digest; if the frying is badly done and the potatoes are impregnated with fat, they become indigestible.”
And inedible to the discriminating palate, I might add.