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The Potato - Its Story, Its Glory

Updated on February 6, 2016

A Man, A Plan, An Absolutely Terrific Story

Those of us who are not Incas owe the potato, the delicious potato, to this man, Monsieur Pamentier, more than to any other. To Parmentier and, perhaps, his jailers.

A 19-yr-old pharmacist serving in the French army in the Seven Years War (1756-63), a global conflict known as the French-and-Indian War in North America (and the Third Carnatic War in India), Parmentier was captured by Prussians on the battlefield and imprisoned in Westphalia. He was fed potatoes.

The potato was grown since ancient times by the Incas in Peru, where Pizarro discovered it and brought it to Europe in1534. (Fifty years later Sir Walter Raleigh discovered the potato in Virginia and brought it to England). But different countries treated this discovery in widely differing ways, though it soon spread widely. Generally (except in Ireland) it was thought fit only for cattle or the poor -- or for prisoners. (Some French thought it caused leprosy).

But Parmentier found it to be nutritious, and when in 1772 a scientific Academy in France announced a contest of plants useful in combating famine (there had been one in France some years before *), Parmentier entered the potato and won. (Others entered it too, but perhaps his presentation was the most scientific). But how now to get people to eat it? Here is where the story gets interesting.

The intellectuals were quickly won over (Ben Franklin was one of the first),and the process of creating delicious ways with this most versatile vegetable began. Even the king, Louis XVI, later to lose his head, started wearing a potato flower in his buttonhole. Marie Antoinette incorporated them into her headdress. But the potato would only succeed if commoners came to like it. A plot was thus conceived. A plot that involves a plot, so to speak.

One of the places Parmentier was allotted to grow his potatoes was a plot in the king's extensive gardens. Troops were assigned to guard this plot. Must be something valuable! At night, however, the troops retired to their quarters. Thieves then entered and soon became propagandists for the royal tuber. The rest, as they say, is history.

* In fact there were 40 between 1500 and the Revolution; there was another in 1795, when the potato proved its worth.

This is making me hungry - How about a recipe?

Potage Parmentier (aka Potato-and-Leek Soup)

Separate the white and green parts of as many as a dozen leeks (fewer if they are really big), Rinse carefully. Four large potatoes -- peeled and quartered and plopped into a bowl of water. Thinly slice the green parts of the leeks and saute in butter in a Dutch oven (casserole). Add six or seven cups (1.5 litres) of water (you can use the water the potatoes have been stored in), bring to a boil and add the potato quarters. Salt and pepper to taste. Put the lid on and simmer for an hour. Ladle the result into a blender and blend. Back into the Dutch oven. Ladle out bowls full and top each with freshly chopped parsley.

Varieties

Mucho or whatever the Inca word for mucho is.

Here are just some: Annabelle, Cherie, Sheland Black, Ratte, Vitelotte, Charlotte, Nicola, Roseval, BF15, Belle de Fonteney, Agata, Bintje, Jersey Royals, Home Guard, Arran Pilot, Maris Piper, Pentland Squire, Golden Wonder, King Edward, Ailsa, Desiree, Wilja, Linzer Delicatesse, Pink Fir Apple.

Nutrition

What is so nutritious about the potato that it could keep Parmentier alive in prison and enable him to win the Academy's prize?

For starters, a potato has much of the recommended daily allowance of a number of vitamins and minerals. Take potassium, essential for optimal muscle performance and improving your nerves' stimulation response. A potato has about 620 mg of potassium, more than a banana. Iron, which helps us convert food to energy as well as resist infection, is another mineral potatoes contain.

Potatoes are also a great source of vitamins, even supplying vitamin C (for wound-healing and for healthy connective tissue). And the B vitamins (healthy red blood cells and amino acids).

No fat or cholesterol and minimal sodium (salt). Natural fiber in the skins. Protein: a six-ounce potato contains 2 grams of highly digestible protein, almost as much as half a glass of milk.

Carbohydrates, too, but don't worry about obesity because in this case the potato is supplying what is the body's primary fuel. This is one of the main things that kept Parmentier alive in prison and enabled his prize. Muscles prefer carbos and the brain relies on them. Indeed, if you severely cut them from your diet, your body will begin to break down muscle and other protein-containing tissues (such as your heart and other vital organs) in order to make them.

By the way, despite popular notions, the majority of nutrients are not found in the skin, but in the potato itself. Leaving the skin on does, however, retain all the nutrients, the fiber in the skin, and makes potatoes easier to prepare.

Summary: an average (~5.3 oz) potato with the skin contains:

45% of the daily value for vitamin C

620 mg potassium, comparable not only to bananas, but to spinach and broccoli

110 calories and no fat.

Another recipe

Patata Cotto con Balsamico

Turn the oven on to 400F (204C).

2 yellow potatoes per person. A red onion or two. Some fresh thyme, a little rosemary. Balsamic vinegar, 3/4 cup (180ml). Extra virgin olive oil. Seat salt and coarse ground black pepper. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise. Put the flat slide down on the cutting board and make thin slices. Cut the onion(s) in half lengthwise. Cut each half into fourths, ensuring that the root end (which should be trimmed) holds each piece together.

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven (cassarole) or large skillet with a cover. Add the onions, add the potatoes. Saute a dozen minutes, until the potatoes take aboard some color. Season. Add thyme and maybe some rosemary, then half the balsamico. Put the lid on and bake in the over for 20 minutes, then stir in the remaining balsamico. 20 or 30 minutes more in the oven.

The Potato Museum

www.potatomuseum.com

"The Potato Museum is not a product of the potato industry. We are a non-profit educational organization dedicated to exploring the potato's fascinating past, controversial present and promising future."

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Parting facts

We can't go without one more recipe, can we?

Macaire potatoes.

Wash and dry about 8 baking potatoes, such as Russet. Pierce the skin before baking them in a preheated, hot oven (400 degrees) for about a hour. When done (the inside, probed with a fork, should be soft), cut them in half and scoop out the white pulp. Season. Mix in half a stick of butter. The result can be refrigerated until cool, or overnight. Form this into a single cake or into several smaller cakes and fry in oil until golden brown on either side. Serves about 8.

Part of a series

Pictures, pictures, pictures

Series within series, actually. Food & Cooking, for example, then -- within that -- series on vegetables, fruits, seafood, meat, etc. Books, too. Ideas, too. Travel, too. Key virtues:. pictures, clear step-by-step text. Delicious -- whether foods or ideas! All of the series, and all of the items in each series, can be found at this link: Lee White's Department Store

Comments - Please!

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Amazing - the thing about the King's guard. Why isn't this man better known? It's not like people don't like potatoes, is it?