“The History and Social Influence of the Potato” by Redcliffe Salaman is certainly not a light read, but it’s a great source for someone seeking an expansive history the crop.
Written in 1949, the 685-page tome covers the potatoes’ origin, travels, various names, myths and its influence on society.
This book will help me craft a Penn State course next spring, where we delve into world food crops. We’ll take a trip with the students to Ireland to study the potato famine and its ultimate influence on the history of Ireland and our own nation.
The common potato, solanum tuberosum, was cultivated for thousands of years in the Andes Mountains of Peru. This is the center of origin of the potato, and the genetic diversity of the potato found in Peru is truly amazing. That is why the International Center for the Potato is located in Peru. The variety of shapes of the potatoes and the myriad of colors of both the skin and flesh is mind-boggling. It is these characteristics that our potato breeders here in the United States have incorporated into the potato lines that are grown commercially and in the backyard gardens.
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It is from Peru that the initial germplasm of our current yellow, blue and red fleshed and skinned potatoes originated from. You can thank the diverse population of potatoes found in Peru for our current entrepreneurial effort by two outstanding students to develop the Penn State blue and white potato chips for the upcoming football season or red and white potato chips for Cornell or Maryland or our blue and gold potato chips for Michigan and Navy. I have worked with potato breeders over the years to test these unique lines, and they are really neat and have a lot of potential.
Growing up it seemed that we ate potatoes three times a day. That was because my grandfather, Lamont, left a little town of Augher in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, at age 16 with two of his brothers and a sister. They landed in Philadelphia where his Aunt Maggie, their sponsor, lived, and the rest is history.
The potato has gone by many names since its discovery, and it took many years for it to be called the potato. It traveled many miles since being discovered, and it also took some time for it to be recognized as a foodstuff that could support a population and ward off famine. Many myths surrounded the potato and some caused it not be adopted quickly, such as that it caused leprosy. Another was that it was linked to increased fertility because the Irish ate so many potatoes and had such large families. There are many more and I am just about 1/3 of the way through the book, so I have many more miles to travel as I follow the tuber, spud, tater, papas, pomme de terre or earth apple on its journey into the modern day and into a staple food crop.