Food History: Mashed Potatoes

During the Seven Years War of the mid-1700s,
a French army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussian soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to live
on rations of potatoes. In mid-18th century France, this would practically
qualify as cruel and unusual punishment: potatoes were thought of as feed for livestock, and
they were believed to cause leprosy in humans. The fear was so widespread that the French
passed a law against them in 1748. But as Parmentier discovered in prison, potatoes
weren’t deadly. In fact, they were pretty tasty. Following his release at the end of the war,
the pharmacist began to proselytize to his countrymen about the wonders of the tuber. One way he did this was by demonstrating all
the delicious ways it could be served, including mashed. By 1772, France had lifted its potato ban. Centuries later, you can order mashed potatoes
in dozens of countries, from fast food to fine dining. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, and welcome to Food
History, a new series from Mental Floss where we dive deep into the amazing culinary stories
that lead to the food on our plates. If you have an idea for a food to explore
in a future episode, leave it in the comments. In the case of mashed potatoes, it’s a journey
that takes 10,000 years and traverses the mountains of Peru and the Irish countryside;
it features cameos from Thomas Jefferson and a food scientist who helped invent a ubiquitous
snack food. Before we get to them, though, let’s go
back to the beginning. Potatoes aren’t native to Ireland—or anywhere
in Europe, for that matter. They were most likely domesticated in the
Andes mountains of Peru and northwest Bolivia, where they were being used for food at least
as far back as 8000 BCE. These early potatoes were very different from
the potatoes most of us know today. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes
and had a bitter taste that no amount of cooking could get rid of. They were also slightly poisonous. To combat this toxicity, wild relatives of
the llama would lick clay before eating them. The toxins in the potatoes would stick to
the clay particles, allowing the animals to consume them safely. Andeans noticed this and started dunking their
potatoes in a mixture of clay and water—not the most appetizing gravy, perhaps, but an
ingenious solution to their potato problem. Even today, when selective breeding has made
most potato varieties safe to eat, some poisonous varieties can still be bought in Andean markets,
where they are sold alongside digestion-aiding clay dust. How cool is that?! By the time Spanish explorers brought the
first potatoes to Europe from South America in the
16th century, they had been bred into a fully edible plant. It took them a while to catch on
overseas, though. By some accounts, European farmers were suspicious
of plants that weren’t mentioned in the Bible; others say it was
the fact that potatoes grow from tubers, rather than
seeds. Modern potato historians (known as tater-ologists
in my potato fan fiction) debate these points, though. Cabbage’s omission from the Bible didn’t
seem to hurt its popularity, and tulip cultivation, using bulbs instead of seeds,
was happening at the same time. It may have just
been a horticultural problem. The South American climates potatoes thrived
in were unlike those found in Europe, especially in terms of hours of daylight in a day. In Europe, potatoes grew leaves and flowers,
which botanists readily studied, but the tubers they produced remained small even after months
of growing. This particular problem began to be remedied
when the Spanish started growing potatoes on the Canary Islands, which functioned as
a sort of middle ground between equatorial South America and more northerly European
climes. It’s worth pointing out, though, that there
is some evidence for the cultural concerns I mentioned earlier. There are clear references to people in the
Scottish Highlands disliking that potatoes weren’t mentioned in the bible, and customs
like planting potatoes on Good Friday and sometimes sprinkling them with holy water
suggest some kind of fraught relationship to potato consumption. They were becoming increasingly common, but
not without controversy. As time went on, concerns about potatoes causing
leprosy severely damaged their reputation. A handful of potato advocates, including our
boy Parmentier, were able to turn its image around. In her 18th-century recipe book The Art of
Cookery, English author Hannah Glasse instructed readers to boil potatoes, peel them, put them
into a saucepan, and mash them well with milk, butter, and a little salt . In the United
States, Mary Randolph published a recipe for mashed potatoes in her book, The Virginia
Housewife. Randolph’s recipe calls for half an ounce
of butter and a tablespoon of milk for a pound of potatoes. Clearly insufficient, in the eyes of this
Virginia housewife. But no country embraced the potato like Ireland. The hardy, nutrient-dense food seemed tailor-made
for the island’s harsh winters. And wars between England and Ireland likely
accelerated its adaptation there; since the important part grows underground, it has a
better chance of surviving military activity. Irish people also liked their potatoes mashed,
often with cabbage or kale in a dish known as colcannon. Potatoes were more than just a staple food
there; they became part of the Irish identity. But the miracle crop came with a major flaw:
It’s susceptible to disease, particularly potato late blight, or Phytophtora infestans. When the microorganism invaded Ireland in
the 1840s, farmers lost their livelihoods and many families lost their primary food
source. The Irish Potato Famine killed a million people,
or an eighth of the country’s population. The British government, for its part, offered
little support to its Irish subjects. One unexpected legacy of the Potato Famine
was an explosion in agricultural science. Charles Darwin became intrigued by the problem
of potato blight on a humanitarian and scientific level; he even personally funded a potato
breeding program in Ireland. His was just one of many endeavors. Using potatoes that had survived the blight
and new South American stock, European agriculturists were eventually able to breed healthy, resilient
potato strains and rebuild the crop’s numbers. This development spurred more research into
plant genetics, and was part of a broader scientific movement that included Gregor Mendel’s
groundbreaking work with garden peas. I never thought I would use the word “groundbreaking”
and “peas” in the same sentence, but, here we are. Around the beginning of the 20th century,
a tool called a ricer started appearing in home kitchens. It’s a metal contraption that resembles
an oversized garlic press, and it has nothing to do with making rice. When cooked potatoes get squeezed through
the tiny holes in the bottom of the press, they’re transformed into fine, rice-sized
pieces. The process is a lot less cumbersome than
using an old-fashioned masher, and it yields more appetizing results. Mashing your potatoes into oblivion releases
gelatinized starches from the plant cells that glom together to form a paste-like consistency. If you’ve ever tasted “gluey” mashed
potatoes, over-mashing was likely the culprit. With a ricer, you don’t need to abuse your
potatoes to get a smooth, lump-free texture. Some purists argue that mashed potatoes made
this way aren’t really mashed at all—they’re riced—but I’m not one to let pedantry
get in the way of delicious carbohydrates. And if mashed potato pedants have opinions
about ricers, they’ll definitely have something to say about this next development. In the 1950s, researchers at what is today
called the Eastern Regional Research Center, a United States Department of Agriculture
facility outside of Philadelphia, developed a new method for dehydrating potatoes that
led to potato flakes that could be quickly rehydrated at home. Soon after, modern instant mashed potatoes
were born. It’s worth pointing out that this was far
from the first time potatoes had been dehydrated. Dating back to at least the time of the Incas,
“chuño” is essentially a freeze-dried potato created through a combination of manual
labor and environmental conditions. The Incas gave it to soldiers and used it
to guard against crop shortages. Experiments with industrial drying were gearing
up in the late 1700s, with one 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson discussing a new invention
where you grated the potato, pressed all the juices out and the resulting cake could be
kept for years. When rehydrated it was “like mashed potatoes”
according to the letter. Sadly, the potatoes had a tendency to turn
into purple, astringent tasting cakes. Interest in instant mashed potatoes resumed
during the Second World War period, but those versions were a soggy mush or took forever. It wasn’t until the ERRC’s innovations
in the 1950s that a palatable dried mashed potato could be produced. One of the key developments was finding a
way to dry the cooked potatoes much faster, minimizing the amount of cell rupture and
therefore the pastiness of the end-product. These potato flakes fit perfectly into the
rise of so-called convenience foods at the time, and helped potato consumption rebound
in the 1960s after a decline in prior years. Instant mashed potatoes are a marvel of food
science, but they’re not the only use scientists found for these new potato flakes. Miles Willard, one of the ERRC researchers,
went on to work in the private sector, where his work helped contribute to new types of
snacks using reconstituted potato flakes, including …drumroll, please…Pringles! Thanks for watching this pilot episode of
Food History.Make sure to subscribe here to catch our next video, and hit the notification
bell so you get notified when we’re releasing new videos. Until then, keep your elbows off the table.

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