History through the eyes of the potato – Leo Bear-McGuinness

Baked or fried, boiled or roasted, as chips or fries. At some point in your life,
you’ve probably eaten a potato. Delicious, for sure, but the fact is potatoes have played a
much more significant role in our history than just that of the dietary staple
we have come to know and love today. Without the potato, our modern civilization
might not exist at all. 8,000 years ago in South America,
high atop the Andes, ancient Peruvians were the first
to cultivate the potato. Containing high levels of proteins
and carbohydrates, as well as essential fats, vitamins
and minerals, potatoes were the perfect food source
to fuel a large Incan working class as they built and farmed
their terraced fields, mined the Rocky Mountains, and created the sophisticated civilization
of the great Incan Empire. But considering how vital they were
to the Incan people, when Spanish sailors
returning from the Andes first brought potatoes to Europe, the spuds were duds. Europeans simply didn’t want to eat what they considered dull and tasteless
oddities from a strange new land, too closely related to the deadly
nightshade plant belladonna for comfort. So instead of consuming them, they used potatoes
as decorative garden plants. More than 200 years would pass
before the potato caught on as a major food source throughout Europe, though even then, it was predominantly eaten
by the lower classes. However, beginning around 1750, and thanks at least in part to the wide availability
of inexpensive and nutritious potatoes, European peasants
with greater food security no longer found themselves at the mercy of the regularly
occurring grain famines of the time, and so their populations steadily grew. As a result, the British, Dutch
and German Empires rose on the backs of the growing groups
of farmers, laborers, and soldiers, thus lifting the West to its place
of world dominion. However, not all European countries
sprouted empires. After the Irish adopted the potato, their population dramatically increased, as did their dependence on the tuber
as a major food staple. But then disaster struck. From 1845 to 1852, potato blight disease ravaged
the majority of Ireland’s potato crop, leading to the Irish Potato Famine, one of the deadliest famines
in world history. Over a million Irish citizens
starved to death, and 2 million more
left their homes behind. But of course, this wasn’t the end
for the potato. The crop eventually recovered, and Europe’s population,
especially the working classes, continued to increase. Aided by the influx of Irish migrants, Europe now had a large, sustainable,
and well-fed population who were capable of manning
the emerging factories that would bring about our modern world
via the Industrial Revolution. So it’s almost impossible to imagine
a world without the potato. Would the Industrial Revolution
ever have happened? Would World War II have been lost
by the Allies without this easy-to-grow crop
that fed the Allied troops? Would it even have started? When you think about it like this, many major milestones in world history
can all be at least partially attributed to the simple spud
from the Peruvian hilltops.

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