Although it’s difficult to believe, potatoes weren’t always so hot. They were once even feared. Find out more about the man who made potato history for the humble tuber.
Early fall in Maine’s northern Aroostook county, schools close to allow for “potato recess”, also known as harvest break, when students help with the potato harvest. This is an annual tradition for America’s most loved crop, the potato. The potato has made great strides to become a popular vegetable both in America and Europe. This wasn’t always true.
The Not So Hot Potato
The potato was a staple of European cuisine since the Spaniards introduced them to Europe in the mid-1500s. However, the French weren’t so keen on it. They rejected the vegetable and called it “hog feed” believing that it caused leprosy. The French Parliament banned potatoes in 1748.
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a French pharmacist who was an army pharmacist during the Seven Year’s War (1754-1763). He was captured by the Prussians and held in captivity. They forced him to eat potatoes for his prison food.
Parmentier’s experience in prison was transformative. Parmentier had survived on potatoes, and he was freed from prison. Parmentier went back to Paris to continue his studies after he was freed in the end. Parmentier was able to show the French that potatoes are delicious for them by 1772. In the same year, Parmentier’s pioneering work led to the French government removing the potato ban. Parmentier won an Academy of Besancon award in 1773 for his research that showed potatoes could be a good source of nutrition for those suffering from dysentery.
Potato Publicity Stunts
Even after all the work of Parmentier, the French still hate potatoes. Parmentier wasn’t deterred. He began to hold publicity stunts featuring potatoes to prove that potatoes were indeed good for people. He hosted dinners with the starved tuber and invited celebrities like Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier. Parmentier once made a bouquet with potato flowers for the Queen and King of France.
Parmentier came up with a new strategy after the failed publicity stunts to popularize potatoes. Parmentier was granted a large piece of Sablons land by King Louis XVI in 1781. Parmentier made a potato field on this land and hired heavily armed guards who would make a big show of protecting the potatoes. He believed that people would see the guards and assume potatoes were valuable. It was worth the risk of stealing anything so tightly guarded. Parmentier’s guards were instructed to let thieves get away with potatoes. The guards were to accept any bribe offered by potato bandits in return for potatoes. Parmentier’s potatoes were soon stolen.
Thefts = Popularity
Although the thefts made potatoes more popular, this was unfortunately not the case for Parmentier as it happened during the French Revolution. Famine was rampant and potatoes were used in 1785 to fight northern France’s starvation. People in France were still suspicious and afraid of Parmentier’s paper on the cultivation and use of potatoes under the orders of the King. This paper was published in 1789 just before the revolution.
In France, potatoes gained traction only in 1794. Madame Merigot published a cookbook on potatoes in 1794. This year potatoes were widely accepted as food for revolutionaries. In the following year, huge plots of potatoes were planted to support rebels during a long siege against Paris Commune.
Many French potato dishes today are named after Parmentier. Hachis Parmentier is a similar dish to shepherd’s pie but with a mashed potato crust. Potage Parmentier is potato-leek soup.