Third Cholera pandemic – Over One Million In the 1850s,
Ahhhh, two of my favorite things! In writing my post of Thanksgiving facts, I stumbled upon the previously-unknown-to-me history of the world’s undeniable best plant, the potato. (Potato chips, french fries, baked potatoes, potatoes au gratin, potato soup. Nothing else compares.) Eager to bring more potato-ey goodness to you, sweet Phactual readers, I dived into a gooey, buttery pile of potato history and did some digging. And eating. Mmmmm, taters.
Potatoes originated in South America, and when they schlepped their way over to Europe, they had the potential to be a godsend: they have every essential nutrient aside from vitamins A and D and calcium, they grow pretty much anywhere (thriving in rainier climates–hello, Ireland), and you don’t need all sorts of fancy equipment to farm them. In the bare bones version, a home garden, a single person, and a spade will pretty much do it. No resources needed + abundant results = great for the impoverished masses.
But the impoverished masses did not love our humble potato.
Reasons People In Olden Times Across Europe Refused to Eat Potatoes, That Most Wonderful of Foods:
- They didn’t appear in the Bible. This was a problem particularly in Scotland. (No, really. I’m guessing they wouldn’t be chill with Gogurt.)
- They belonged to the family Solanaceae, the same as tomatoes, eggplants, sweet peppers… and nightshade and mandrake, which aside from being poisonous, were associated with witchcraft. People thought potatoes were demon plants that would kill them.
- Enforcing the “demon plant” idea–they grow underground. You know what else is underground? Satan. In 1869, the art critic and social theorist John Ruskin called them the “scarcely innocent underground stem of one of a tribe set aside for evil.” Screw you too, John.
- Root veggies as a whole didn’t have a good rap–in the odd grey area between witchcraft and developing ideas of medicine, they were believed to cause things like menstruation, lactation, and the production of sperm. England’s Henry VIII thought sweet potatoes were an aphrodisiac. But sweet potatoes got off (ba-doom-tss) without people hating them, because they were rare enough that only rich people could afford to eat them, where normal potatoes (indeed, most vegetables) were associated with the poor.
- Did I mention people thought potatoes caused leprosy?
Eventually, world leaders got the message that potatoes could keep their populations from starving to death en masse (usually–sorry, Ireland), so they tried all sorts of trickery–like reverse psychology potato garden thievery and Catherine the Great outright telling the potato-hating Orthodox Church to knock it off–and were eventually able to chip away at their subjects’ bias.
Go hug a potato today, because they’ve been slandered in their time, boy howdy.