The History of The Humble Potato
Written by Edward Hill-King: Today potatoes are regarded as the fourth most important crop in the world and stand as a staple of cuisines across the globe. But behind this abundant food is a long journey across continents and seas and a history as old as civilisation.
Potatoes were first cultivated by humans in the Andean mountains around 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, although the exact emergence of potato farming is not known. Wild potatoes can still be found throughout South America, with 151 documented species , although most are inedible. Darwin noted an encounter with wild potatoes when visiting the Chiloé Archipelago, describing them as having the same smell as an English potato, but “watery and insipid” once boiled .
From 100 to 700AD the Moche civilisation inhabited a region of what is now modern-day Peru. Although they left no written record, their story lives on through a message in a bottle. Or more precisely, the message is the bottle; hundreds of painted and sculpted ceramics have been recovered, serving as artistic trace fossils and a glimpse into the lives and belief systems of a fascinating civilisation. A common theme amongst the jars and bottles they crafted is the image of the potato. Strangely the likeness of the potato is typically merged with that of human beings, tubers with human faces, two of the potato eyes doubling as human eyes, or humans seated upon giant tubers. The use of the word for the sensory organ ‘eye’ when referring to the sprouts on a potato is not limited to English, but also occurs in Spanish and many indigenous South American languages . We cannot know for sure the significance and symbolism of human–potato hybrids in Moche art; however, their prevalence suggests potatoes were an integral part of Moche culture, and even religion, and some potato vessels appear to have been used in funerary rituals. As potatoes are buried to create new life, the symbolism of the potato in this context is a fascinating yet enigmatic peer into the belief systems of a culture buried by the sands of time.
Although the sweet potato had already long set sail to Asia and Africa around 1100AD on Polynesian ships, Solanum tuberosum did not leave the Americas until the invasion of the Spanish conquistadors. The potato initially escaped the attention of European botanists when only the tubers first travelled the seas. Philippe de Sivry, prefect of Mons, delivered two tubers and a fruit of the potato plant to French botanist Carolus Clusius , former director of the Holy Roman Emperor’s garden, in 1588, followed by a watercolour of a potato plant the following year. Clusius wrote one of the earliest botanical descriptions of the potato. The potato was given its Latin name, Solanum tuberosum, in 1589 by Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin .
Frederick the Great of Prussia was an avid believer in the sustenance potential of the potato. He feared Prussia was heading towards a famine and urged the public to grow and eat more potatoes; however, this advocacy went unheeded and little interest was shown in the humble potato. The official response of the town of Kolberg to Frederick passing an order for the cultivation of the potato was: “The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?” . But Frederick plotted a plan to plant the potato into the diets of the masses. He had his men plant a royal potato garden, and had troops patrol this garden, protecting the crops. This new guarded endeavour piqued the interest of the peasants, curious as to what could be so special to warrant royal protection. However, this protection was a ruse; the guards were instructed to accept bribes and let thieves slip by. Potatoes began to be traded on the black market and gained the bad-boy allure they needed to gain popularity. The potato fast became a staple food in Prussia, and they survived the feared famine. In memory of his contributions to the potato, Frederick’s grave in Potsdam is surrounded by potato plants, and he has been dubbed “The Potato King”. He passed away on 17 August 1786, aged 74.
Despite the potato first reaching European botanical attention in France, the potato was long thought to cause leprosy and was shunned in France as nothing more than pig feed. French scepticism of the potato was so harsh that in 1748, cultivation of the potato was banned. During the Seven Year’s war, 1756–1763, a French pharmacist by the name of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by the Prussians and held as a prisoner of war. During his imprisonment Antoine-Augustin was fed on a diet of potatoes, but rather than developing leprosy, he instead developed a liking and passion for the potato.
Upon his return to France, Antoine-Augustin began a campaign to change public perception of this curious vegetable. He took a page out of his captors’ playbook and had his own guarded potato garden to entice thieves into distributing and marketing the potato. He served potatoes to many important figures, including Benjamin Franklin, and gave bouquets of potato blossom to French royalty. Upon receiving potato flowers, it is said that King Louis XVI sported one in the buttonhole of his jacket and Queen Marie Antoinette wore some in her hair. An act of fashion that brought the largely disregarded potato great attention. With the help of Antoine-Augustin’s advocacy, 1772 saw the potato finally recognised as edible by the Paris Faculty of Medicine.
Much like the resting place of his former captor, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier’s tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery is also surrounded by potato plants. Once enemies in war, both Frederick the Great and Antoine-Augustin fought hard for the potato. Antoine-Augustin’s legacy is immortalised in the names of many French potato dishes, including ‘Salade Parmentier’, a potato salad, and ‘Crème Parmentier’ a potato and leek soup. There is a Parisian avenue and accompanying Metro Station opened in 1904 named ‘Parmentier’ in his honour; the station is adorned by a statue of Antoine-Augustin handing a potato to a farmer.
The rise of the potato in Britain was not without resistance. A Christian activist group arose in the 1800s by the name ‘The Society for The Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet’, who passionately protested against the potato and sought its cultivation in Britain to be banned. The acronym of this society, SPUD, is believed to be the origin of the nickname ‘spud’ for a potato; however, there are other contradictory theories as to the term’s etymology. Another potential origin is a tool for uprooting potatoes, referred to as a ‘spud’, and ‘spuddy’ being someone who sells potatoes; which term came first is unclear. SPUD feared the potato was just as dangerous as many of its nightshade cousins like the deadly nightshade, and claimed the potato caused a number of ailments including rickets, tuberculosis, syphilis, obesity and lust.
Van Gogh paints a very different picture of the potato than the fantastical pottery of the Moche or the technical sketches of botanists. His 1885 painting ‘The Potato Eaters’ was to be submitted to the Salon in Paris, which held the official exhibitions of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and a prestigious collection of in vogue pieces, but to be submitted by his brother, Theo. In a letter to Theo in reference to this painting, Van Gogh writes: “I wanted to give the idea of a wholly different life from ours – civilised people” . Van Gogh portrays the potato as a symbol of humble authenticity, of rolled-up sleeves, of honest manual labour and living off the land. The peasants eating the potatoes are portrayed in such a way to reveal his similar admiration of their idealised realness, untainted by the profligacies and pretentious artificialities that had not only tainted the upper crust of society, but in Van Gogh’s eyes, had tainted mainstream art.
Later in his letters to Theo, Van Gogh writes: “A peasant girl is more beautiful than a lady – to my mind – in her dusty and patched blue skirt and jacket, which have acquired the most delicate nuances from weather, wind and sun. But – if she puts – a lady’s costume on, then the genuineness is lost.” . Much as the potato had strayed from a novelty at the dinner parties of nobility to the common food of common people, Van Gogh descended the social ladder, rejecting his well-off upbringing in search of real life. The humble potato of modern Europe, although much the same in material as the potatoes of ancient South America, had lost its divinity. The tuber had fallen from the heavens and lay in loam, mortal, material and common, but to Van Gogh, this simple earthly potato was beautiful.
During World War II, conflict put a great weight on agriculture, both in demand and in disruption. Wheat was sent to the front lines, and those left at home were urged to embrace the potato, and eat potatoes, not bread. British propaganda features an anthropomorphic mascot, ‘Field Marshal Potato Pete’. Potato Pete boasted his endless uses and wartime pragmatism on posters all over the UK, and even had his own song:
“Potatoes new, potatoes old
Potato (in a salad) cold
Potatoes baked or mashed or fried
Potatoes whole, potato pied
Enjoy them all, including chips
Remembering spuds don’t come in ships!” 
The Potato Plan campaign also hailed the potato, with endorsements such as ‘Doctors say eat a least 1 lb of potatoes every day’. But Britain was not the only nation in World War II singing the praises of the potato; Nazi German propagandists also turned towards the reliable and domestically growable vegetable. In the aftermath of World War II, the potato played a crucial role in the sustenance of healing countries that had been ravaged by the conflict. However, there was a new threat that loomed over the fields, the Colorado Potato Beetle. Being native to America, the Americans were accused of having purposefully introduced the beetles by parachuting them out of planes. Posters were pinned up depicting Colorado potato beetles with star spangled banners in the patterns of their exoskeletons and showing children how to kill the pests with a bottle of spirit.
Late 20th century North Korean agriculture was highly dependent upon Soviet fertiliser imports and electric water pumps. Following the fall of the USSR and economic collapse in North Korea, 1994 to 1998 saw horrific famine in the region. Nicknamed the ‘Arduous March’, estimates for the famine range from 240,000 to 3,500,000 deaths. With the land ravaged by famine and conflict, leader Kim Jon-Il looked towards new to approaches to agriculture and saw the potato as the future for feeding his nation. North Korea was to become the ‘Potato Kingdom of Asia’ with the help of the Potato Revolution . A large potato propaganda campaign was launched, including a song named ‘Potato Pride’, featuring catchy lyrics such as:
“Potato Pride! Oh, so many. Lost count at thirty. Oh oh oh, potato pride!”
“In the past people lived poorly, in this far-flung region, which today under the arms of the party, has become paradise on earth.”
The song is sung in a euphoric optimism, with a catchy and vibrant instrumental, inspiring patriotic hope of a potato Korea.
In 2008 a selection of potato paintings was added to the Korean Art Gallery, depicting Koreans amongst bountiful potatoes and idyllic potato blossom . The following year saw the addition of a painting, by artist Kim Song-Min, of Kim Jong Il sharing potatoes amongst happy peasants in Taehongdan, a region of North Korea where the potato revolution was launched. The ‘Dear Leader’ named a farmer’s twin children after the region and furnished the homes of injured veterans and their farmer wives. Promising a bright and potato-fuelled post-war future. In recent years there has been a resurgence of North Korean potato propaganda, featuring traditional Korean cuisine but with potatoes taking the place of other ingredients such as rice or flour, and a return of Potato Pride to North Korean television screens. This reappearance of potato endorsement may be an indication that the government fears further famine.
Today the potato is much beloved for its versatility and comforting starchiness. The image of the potato is often portrayed as comical. There is a certain charm to this curious lumpy delight. The potato also has its negative connotations, of globularity and laziness; one would not want to have their physique compared with that of a potato or to be accused of being a couch potato. Microsoft Word even suggested I change ‘Couch Potato’ to ‘Lazy Person’.
Although the journey of the potato has been arduous and long, it is far from over. Potatoes play a crucial role in contemporary agriculture and will likely continue to be a pillar of diets around the world for many centuries to come.
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