World Travels of the Potato

In my latest book, people eat food. (Shocking!) These people are in medieval Ireland. Living in pre-Columbian times, they lacked foods native to the Americas, especially corn, tomatoes, and potatoes. I often write at Chick Fil-A, and I can only feel sad at how most of my characters never got to eat a side of french fries dipped in ketchup.

So how did potatoes become associated with Ireland?

By the 1500’s, the Inca (and their predecessors) had developed numerous strains of potatoes, each suited to a particular micro-climate in the Andean mountains. Even today, people grow deep purple potatoes, bright reddish-orange potatoes, yellow potatoes, and white potatoes, with shapes that vary from long and skinny to bulbous.

Conquistadors and merchants brought specimen plants back to parts of Europe. A few survived the trip, and among these was a white, round potato that happened to be perfectly suited to thrive in the soil and climate of Ireland.

Why did so many Irish grow potatoes? The main reason was that the English had taken all the land, and were renting it back to the people at rates which were impossible to pay. Basically, if you worked your buns off for a year, and brought in a harvest of wheat, the moment you got it bagged up the English landlord would come by and say, “Good! That’s exactly what you owe in rent this year!” and carry it off. But potatoes could be left in the field and harvested as needed– making it much more difficult for a landlord to come by and swipe your harvest. (I think Malcolm Gladwell mentioned this idea in a book that argued that rice production led to math skills and business acumen while wheat production led to fatalism. But maybe I heard it somewhere else.) To avoid starvation, the Irish would grow wheat to pay the rent, and grow potatoes to feed their families.

This system was unfair, but at least the Irish didn’t die– until the years that the fungus-likeĀ oomycete invaded and killed off the potatoes. Those years, English landlords still came by and took all the wheat the Irish had planted and harvested, even though there were no potatoes for the workers to eat. By the second and third crop failures, there was rampant Irish starvation, even though these same Irish had grown more than enough wheat to feed themselves. The English decided that the way to deal with this problem of all their workers starving to death was to ship them off to America. This massive depopulation of Ireland was a tremendous boon to America, which got cheap labor in the cities, cheap labor on the railroads, and a bunch of citizens more than willing to take a grant of native prairie in exchange for performing the labor to build a permanent residence on it and to turn it into grazing land and farm land.

[Let’s not think too hard about the ironies of Americans that fought off the British in order to avoid being treated the way the British treated its native population (Irish), then turning around and using the displaced native Irish population to establish a firm hold on land that was at the time populated by America’s own native population (American Indians), in order to displace them. (My parents recently got DNA tests that showed, among many other population groups, Irish, English, and native American ancestry; plus, I’m a proud American– the result being that I don’t know which dog in this fight is properly mine.)]

Anyway, this farm land was often perfectly suited to growing those same potatoes that the Irish brought with them when they crossed the Atlantic.

So when you look at an Idaho potato, there’s a strong likelihood that the ancestors of that plant made the trip from the Andes, to Ireland, to North America. That side of french fries encapsulates a huge swath of modern world history.