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-like 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.

Finding a New Favorite Band: “Connla”

Last week I took my kids to a concert by “Connla,” a band from northern Ireland. Through some instant karma, we were lucky enough to get floor seats (literally, sitting on our pockets at the band members’ feet). When I realized how close we would be to the performers, I felt a shyness, which feeling intensified when the band came up.

But only a few measures into the first song, “Pilot,” I realized my crossed legs were moving to the rhythm, and I’d already forgotten my reserve. The band had started its magic, and like all the best professional musicians, they were enticing everyone to become part of their spell-casting. They led us through jazzy pieces that felt like easily dancing on a sunlit path through a bright green meadow (“Mighty Makena’s”), dark songs that conjured disturbing history (“Julia”), exciting tunes that made me wish I could lock arms and turn with my fellow audience members (“Drunken Piper”), songs of hope (“Sail On”), and lots of others, tied together with pleasant personal stories that made us laugh or cheer.

Being that close, I witnessed their talent in a way impossible from a seat in the back. Every instantaneous pitch change in the drum was because she precisely positioned her fingers on its underside. The harpist leapt from chord to chord, her fingers perfect for each attack, exactly complimenting the guitarist, whose fingers worked with such rapidity up and down the fretboard that they seemed unconnected to the calm face of their owner. And the pipes and flutes– I would’ve thought their fingers were merely fluttering over their instruments except that those shockingly fast notes were in perfect alignment with each other and all the other instruments. And the lead singer’s voice had a sweetness not usually found in tones so rich and full.

I loved how they played the sudden, quick silences in their music to add a breath of excitement or to signal a change of tempo or style in the song. That kind of precise expression only comes from countless hours of practicing together. (Think of how easy it is for someone singing Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus” to stick an extra “alleluia” into the caesura at the very end. A choir director I know often warns members about not taking unintended solos.)

Though a few of us did take them up on their invitation to give a yell when we felt so inspired, my guess is that we stuffy Americans weren’t as fun of an audience as they might get on a Saturday night in a pub in Armagh. But they wielded their power to make the standing-room-only crowded room of widely varying strangers feel a unity, an enlivening. For that too-short time together, we lived our lives more abundantly.

30 years + sizable research = “Immigrant Song” appreciation

Recently I’ve studied Irish history, including history of the Viking raids and settlements during the 9th – 11th centuries. Then I read some history of the Vikings. Then I watched the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the Great Courses lecture series “The Vikings.” I also read a retelling of Norse myths by Neil Gaiman.

Yes, very erudite of me. Thank you for noticing.

Well, I first heard “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin when, in high school, a friend wanted to introduce me to real rock, so he loaned me a tape of Zeppelin music he’d picked out. It was too fuzzy to understand the words, but he wrote the title on the case liner, so I knew it was about immigration, and I guessed it was probably a political protest song because it was made in the 70s so what else could it be?

I heard it again while watching “School of Rock” with Jack Black singing along, and because he made that big hammering arm motion when he sang “hammer of the gods,” I now knew one lyric. I thought it a weird line, but guessed it was poetically expressing the idea that fate is harsh to refugees.

Then, when watching the “Thor” movies, I recognized that song in the fight scenes, and thought it an odd fit– “It has that great thrumming beat, so it works, musically, but thematically, why use a song about the challenges immigrants face in coming to America? I mean, we’re dealing with Norse gods fighting monsters. Maybe Stan Lee really wanted it, like how J. J. Abrams makes them use Beastie Boys tunes in Star Trek.”

So, I was flipping through radio stations in the minivan a couple of days ago, and it came on, and I told my kids, “You have to hear this, it’s a classic.” I turned it up, listening carefully in case there were any bad words I needed to censor. I was thinking, “Hmm. Land of ice and snow, midnight sun, hammer of the gods, and did he just say, ‘Valhalla I am coming’? What the heck? Is this a song about the medieval Viking invasions?”

I got home and looked up the lyrics: “Whoa, those are really cool and powerful, and, huh, that’s terribly clever to use it with Thor, and, hey, it all makes sense, now!”

*homer face slap*

Yet another example of learning something new, and then finding that its secrets had been hidden in plain sight everywhere around you for your entire life.