Potato II: Potato Rises
I can sort of understand people’s reluctance about potatoes. I mean, imagine encountering one and not knowing what it was. It’s lumpy, spotty, dirty, brown, bland, and if you eat the wrong part you get poisoned. No surprise, then, that they found use mostly as food for pigs. Pigs’ll eat anything.
Diderot’s Encyclopédie had this to say about the potato, 200 years after it arrived in Spain: “No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy. It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance…what is windiness to the strong bodies of peasants and laborers?” Windy, in this case, means flatulent. They really don’t make encyclopedias like they used to.
But back to Parmentier. When he returned to France after his last stint as a prisoner of war, potatoes had been banned for 15 years (something about them causing leprosy). He talked about potatoes, wrote about potatoes, threw potato-themed banquets for the rich and famous, and even persuaded the King and Queen of France to wear potato blossoms as high fashion. All that in addition to what’s depicted in this week’s comic. By the time he was done, potatoes weren’t just edible – they were a huge fad.
While I was reading this week, I found an almost-identical story about Frederick the Great of Prussia: he liked potatoes, but everyone else thought they were gross, so he planted a field, put it under guard, told the guards to be lazy, and suddenly everyone wanted potatoes. It’s possible Parmentier got the idea from King Frederick. Or maybe only one of the stories is true, or both, or neither. Who knows? Probably a real historian would. But conspiracy theories have been started with less.
But I’d certainly never suggest that the King of Prussia faked his own death in order to become a famous French potato scholar.