Soon after I return home from the supermarket, I dump the potatoes from the plastic bag into the kitchen sink. (I usually get five pounds at a time, because they keep better that way for me.) I run a trickle of cold water then scrub them with a Scotchbrite scrubber, rinse them, then place the spuds to dry in the dish drainer. This is one way I get close to my food.
Many people don’t realize that the care and preparation of fresh potatoes can provide joy. We are presented with the depiction of a soldier being punished by being assigned KP Duty. The poor fellow has to peel mountains of potatoes. If you don’t have to prepare potatoes for an army base, the humble potato can be the focus of mindfulness. I call it potato meditation. It is a mindfulness practice to use if your recipe is more complicated than just baking the spud. I pay full, silent attention to each step.
Take one medium size potato of whatever variety you prefer. Rinse it under a slow stream of water. Use your fingers to clean it. Take your time and pay attention to each bump and indentation. Listen to the water as it flows over the vegetable and into the sink. Shut off the water and continue examining the potato very slowly and carefully. Shake off excess water and listen to the splash it makes.
Pick up your paring knife or peeling tool and examine it carefully. Feel the handle. Is it wood or some type of plastic? Before you cut into the potato skin, thank the potato for its sacrifice to you.
Then slowly and carefully trim the skin. Your grateful attitude will help when you remove only the skin, and not the flesh of the spud. When the skin is gone, place it aside to either discard or saute’ later.
As you slice or dice the potato, feel the moisture of the potato juice, the pressure you exert, hear the crunching of the act, and smell the aroma of the freshly cut potato.
While the potato cooks, I sometimes think of the importance of this common, everyday food. There are literally thousands of varieties of potato, but most westerners are familiar with only a few. The wide biodiversity makes potatoes, as a whole, naturally resistant to climatic conditions, diseases, and many pests.
The common potatoes we enjoy, today, were first cultivated in the Andes vicinity of South America. In the 1500s, European explorers brought specimens home with them where the potatoes were used mainly as livestock fodder. It wasn’t until 1795 that a propaganda campaign by the English government finally convinced the people of the British Islands to eat the tuber.
The French didn’t care to eat spuds until the late 1700s. When King Louis XVI began wearing a potato flower as a personal fashion decoration, the potato finally gained popularity.
The stubborn German people needed a bit of subterfuge to start eating potatoes. Frederick the Great of Prussia is responsible for the spread of potato growing in central and eastern Europe. Despite direct orders from the king, the peasants were reluctant to grow the food. The highly conservative Germans were averse to eating anything different or exotic.
King Frederick decided to pull a fast one on his subjects. He had a large plot of spuds planted in his royal fields, then assigned armed guards to protect his precious crop. The local peasants soon noticed what the king was up to. Some of the farmers sneaked
onto the fields and swiped some of the potato plants to grow in their own plots. Of course, this was exactly what Frederick the Great wanted, all along.
As the potato spread across Europe and Western Asia, officials noticed that spuds helped diminish the effects of regular famines, in that there was finally enough food for everyone most of the time. They also noticed that dreaded diseases like measels and tuberculosis were less virulent among populations that regularly consumed potatoes. People were generally much more healthy than before.
Unfortunately, in Ireland, potatoes had become a monoculture. Like most monocultures, they became susceptible to pests and blight. The tragedy of the great potato famine hit the Irish hard with more than 750,000 people starving to death during the 1800s.
In the 1870s, using Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the botanical genius Luther Burbank developed the Russet Burbank hybrid potato to alleviate the Irish Potato blight. From that point onwards, new varieties of potatoes were developed by other scientists and agronomists.
Today, potatoes are raised everywhere from their place of origin in Peru and Chile, clear up to Greenland. They are the third most cultivated food crop behind wheat and rice.
A major benefit of potato growing is that one hectare of potato plants yields up to four times the food mass of grain crops. This means that potatoes yield more food per unit of water than any other major food crop. In the process, they’re up to seven times more efficient in water use than cereal grains.
Because of this efficiency, potatoes are now grown in more than 100 countries around the globe. Since the middle of the 20th century, potato production has quickly overtaken all other food crops in the developing world. Potatoes are a major, fundamental nutrition resource security food for millions of people in most parts of the world. In fact, over half of all worldwide potato production is in developing nations.
Who would have thought that such an ordinary food that we take so much for granted, had such a colorful history?
The Blue Jay of Happiness found this tid bit from M.F.K. Fisher: “It is easy to think of potatoes, and fortunately for men who have not much money, it is easy to think of them with a certain safety. Potatoes are one of the last things to disappear, in times of war, which is probably why they should not be forgotten in times of peace.”