Pommes de terre. Tapuach adama. Aardappel. Erdaepfel. A potato by any other name is–at least in French, Hebrew, Dutch, or Swiss German (not to mention Persian)–an “earth apple.”
Apple is a curious word etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The fruit that we call the apple was called malus in classical Latin (it’s still called that in botanical Latin).
Pomum–a word that gives us pome in English and pomme in French–was a more recent arrival from the time ecclesiastical Latin, referring specifically to the forbidden fruit of Genesis and, later and by extension, to any foreign fruit.
Thus, the exquisitely tasty tomato became on its arrival from Mexico the “love apple” for its alleged aphrodisiac qualities. The potato, with origins in the Andes, became the aptly named “earth apple.” Foreign. Forbidden. Indeed, European farmers resisted both “apples” for generations, believing them to be, like so many other members of the nightshade family (Jimson weed, mandrake and belladonna, tobacco), poisonous.
Solanum tuberosum, “now grown commercially worldwide for its starchy underground stem tubers,” is the stilted professional argot in which the OED describes this useful plant. But an earlier lexicographer, E. Phillips, writing in the 4th edition of his The New World of Words (1678), described it as:
a sort of fruit, coming originally from the West Indies, but now common in English Gardens, whose Root is of great vertue, to comfort and strengthen the Body.
Much more poetical. And true.
Have you ever eaten an early potato which you planted with your own hands on St. Patrick’s Day? Have you ever dug one fresh from its bed of warm earth in July, sifting through the soil for pomes roughly the size of a jumbo Easter egg and almost as colorful–red or tan or a deep blue-purple, with a skin so thin you could rub it off with your thumb.
They smell, as you gather them into baskets, of nothing so much as the warm rich earth that formed them. Soil (if you’re lucky or a careful gardener) that’s moist, that’s rich with microbial life, that’s dark and full of minerals, that has the proper tilth.
And scrubbed and cooked in whatever fashion you prefer–roasted or tossed in butter and parsley or mashed with garlic–the potato does, in fact, comfort and strengthen the body. There is no flavor or texture more delicate or more distant from its grocery store counterpart–with the possible exception of the potato’s nightshade family relative, the tomato.
Last year, Marc and I planted potatoes at the 10 and 1/2 Street Garden for the first time. We had never grown them. I, to be perfectly honest, didn’t even enjoy them. But for my love, Midwestern born and bred, they were something he could have eaten all day every day. (Sort of like the way my coastal Carolina father feels about rice).
Hash browns with breakfast, fries with lunch, mashed or roasted taters with dinner represented something like culinary nirvana to him. Comfort and strength–and for a man who labors with his hands for a living, both are essential. Speaking strictly for myself, I’d never eaten so many potatoes in my life (or gained as many extraneous pounds!) as I did the first year we dated. Nor, as the months passed, had I ever enjoyed anything less.
You see, as that first winter wore on (and on and on–it was 2010, the winter of the great snow), I noticed that the taste and the texture of the potatoes we were eating seemed to be deteriorating markedly–they seemed to get drier, mealier, and more repulsive with every ten-pound bag of Idaho russets we purchased, whether we got them at local stores like our beloved Reid’s or a national chain like Kroger.
I’ve since come to believe we were eating old–and I mean ohhhld-ass– potatoes. This is, of course, the problem with any mass-produced food in the global supply chain. Whether it’s eggs or meat or even asparagus, we have no idea how far our food has traveled to get to our grocer’s, and we have to read the labels carefully to find out where it’s traveled from.
In historical terms, of course, the fact that the potato was a food that kept well was one of the key to its success as it spread from the Incan Empire to the Caribbean and from there to virtually the whole of Europe. (The Incas’ staple, for example, was a food known as chunu: a dehydrated, mashed potato product that could be kept up to 10 years–a real advantage at a time when poor rains might spell famine the next winter). But in contemporary terms, what that means is that that bag of potatoes you purchase in March … may have been sitting in some distribution hub for months before showing up at your local grocer’s.
Of course, age is not the only factor. There’s also the fact that your personal preference might be for mashed potatoes or German potato salad or roasted potatoes or hash browns. But the modern potato–grown in vast monocultures nuked with pesticides and fungicides in places like Idaho and Wisconsin–has one and only one optimum end use: as a frozen French fry.
Consider this brief history of the French fry:
1872: Horticulturist Luther Burbank develops the Burbank potato, notable for its length, high solids, and low sugar content.
1953: Idaho potato magnate J.R. Simplot invents the frozen French fry.
1965: Ray Kroc markets the French fry to the world.
1995: Monsanto application for the genetically modified potato is approved by the EPA. The Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) Burbank potato carries a pesticide in every one of its cells.
The typical American eats 30 pounds of French fries per year, 90% of them purchased at fast food outlets.
Think about it–think about all those French fries hawked from Baltimore to Beijing. That confluence of fatty, starchy, saltiness has made the frozen potato the most lucrative part of the global market for spuds. Compared to that, the taste and freshness of the home-cooked potato is almost beside the point … because … who cooks? Not so many people when you consider that the “typical American” eats 30 pounds of French fries a year, 90% of them purchased from fast food restaurants…
A number, by the way, that is astronomically larger than the number of people who garden… Though CNN assures us that, with that hard economic times and the example of the White House garden, recession gardening is catching on.
According to the National Gardening Association, a $70 investment in growing your own food will yield a $600 savings on your annual grocery bill.
Last year, Marc and I planted a five pounds of Red Pontiac potatoes in a 6’x25′ garden bed. They were mouth-wateringly delicious both when we dug out the early potatoes at the end of June (about 20 pounds) and when we made the final pass at the end of the season (another 20 pounds, yo). Now we didn’t eat all those potatoes–we gave most of them away to the neighbors on 10 1/2 Street. But what we took home kept us fed for weeks and weeks…
This year, we decided to expand–we selected from the the more than 100 varieties available from Ronninger’s Potato Garden: Rose Apple Finn fingerlings (don’t you love that name?), the early-season varieties Dazoc and Mountain Rose, and the long-season Snow White. Ronninger’s has an impressive commitment to genetic diversity in the varieties it features (a commitment whose importance can be summed up in three words: Irish Potato Famine).
We’re curious about the properties of these varieties. Chefs are said to love fingerlings, so a quality crop could potentially be sold to support the garden operations. Mountain Rose, meanwhile, is a pink-fleshed variety that’s particularly good for chips. (Sure would be interesting to try.) And Snow White is supposed to be a really good keeper, making it perfect for our pet project Seeds of Love, through which we hope to contribute in some small way in the task of feeding the hungry in Charlottesville alongside programs like Abundant Life and the local food bank and the Jefferson Area Board for Aging and Food not Bombs.
… My seed potatoes were perfectly smooth when they arrived in the compact white box from Ronninger’s. A week later, the eyes have just begun to form. I’m keeping them in the greenhouse, which is lovely and toasty and sunny in the day while the eyes grow plump and juicy. At night, I lap the spuds in burlap and keep a close eye on the weather report so as not to be surprised by a freeze.
Such is the way of slow food. Clock time. Plus “photo period” (hours of daylight). Plus soil temperatures. Plus knowledge of each individual plant’s cycles. It’s time away from FaceBook and Pinterest and March Madness. And this blog, too 🙂 But it’s time with your loved ones … and with creation.
What more could one desire?
[Oh, and the source for that brief history of the French fry is Andrew Kimbrell’s edited collection of essays and photographs Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (2002), pp. 80-81. It’s a book everyone should read.]