The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Portraits of the Past: A brief history of the world's most important vegetable

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  • When I was a much younger lad, my uncle, Frank Larkin, along with many other Missouri River flat bottom farmers, grew many acres of huge red potatoes.
    They were cleaned and sacked and loaded on box cars and shipped up the railroads to the big city markets. It made good, wholesome summer employment for many local kids like myself.
    To this day, a fried potato is still one of my all-time favorite foods.
    I always thought McDonald's must have invented French fries, but I guess I was wrong — we actually have the Spanish conquistadors to thank.
    Many years ago, while the marauding conquistadors were exploring for silver high up in the Andes, they found Peruvians cultivating a small yellow-flesh tuber called papa and decided that it was a “dainty dish even for Spaniards.”
    The spud was not only tasty, but was easy to pack along with them on their long trips and remained fresh for long periods of time without rotting. So, when the Spaniards loaded their silver loot on the ships heading back to Spain, they also packed in some “papas.”
    Overall, the potato was perhaps a more valuable find for the world than all the silver of Peru.
    Ironically, the potato of South America took almost two more centuries to reach North America. It went from Spain to Italy to northern Europe and to Bermuda before finally landing in the Virginia Colonies.
    Life has not always been easy for the potato, though, because it's related to the deadly jimsonweed.
    For many years across Europe, the tuber was accused of causing everything from tuberculosis to leprosy. The Scottish divines called it the forbidden vegetable because it was not mentioned in the Bible.
    Naturally, the folks scorned the spuds and refused to eat them. But, thanks to a French chemist during the time of Maria Antoinette, it was discovered that the potato really was nutritious and could take the place of grain during a famine or other hard times.
    To convince the people of the importance of the potato and to arouse the curiosity of the local farmers, they planted an experimental field of the plants and placed armed guards around during the daytime, but removed the guards at night.
    Sure enough, as hoped for, the farmers sneaked in during the night and stole all of the potato plants, and the French fry was born.
    As the “chief food of the poor,” potatoes succeed, perhaps too well, because some people, like the Irish in the 1840s, lived on them almost exclusively.
    A small plot of potatoes could feed a family with six children as well as the family pig and a cow to boot.
    Page 2 of 2 - But, in 1845 their leaves all turned black and a devastating potato blight spread across Europe and more than a million Irishmen starved to death. The Great Potato Famine, as it was called, altered forever the population of the U.S., bringing thousands of hungry Irish, German and Polish emigrants to American shores.
    In today’s weight-conscious society, potatoes are often shunned as fattening. They are not, according to the American Medical Society.
    One medium boiled potato contains 70-100 calories (without butter), less than cottage cheese or an apple. And it is filling, since about 77 percent of the vegetable is water.
    High in vitamin C and minerals, and one of the least expensive of all staple foods, the tuber of the Andes (the papa) is easily the world’s most important vegetable.
    Information from "Stories Behind Everyday Things," compiled by Reader's Digest, was used in this column.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell, email teddy.stillwell@yahoo.com or call (816) 252-9909.
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