The common “Irish” white potato was actually born in the Andean Mountains of South America where potato plants were cultivated by humans at least 7,000 years ago. Precursors of the Incas were impressed by its ruggedness, storage quality, and nutritional value.
Archaeologists have found potato-shaped pottery complete with eyes that sometimes feature tiny heads growing out of them. Incan units of time correlated to how long it took for a potato to cook to various consistencies. Potatoes were used to divine the truth and predict weather. The Incas actually worshipped potatoes and buried them with their dead.
The Indians of Peru developed the original method of dehydrating potatoes: they spread them in the sun and let them dry out. At high elevations in southern Peru, the potatoes are also exposed to freezing, after which they dry more rapidly. After dehydration, the potatoes can be pounded into flour or cooked whole. Remains of prehistoric stores of dried potatoes have been found.
Spanish conquistadores encountered the potato when they arrived in Peru in 1532 in search of gold. They brought the plant to Europe in the late 16th century as a curiosity. The word “potato” is believed to be derived from the South American Indians’ name, papa or patata.
Initially the Spanish considered potatoes food for the lower classes, but when claims were made that the potato could cure illnesses, it became a delicacy. Potatoes became a standard food item on Spanish ships because potatoes are high in vitamin C and sailors who ate them did not suffer from scurvy.
The potato was introduced to other parts of Europe by merchants and kings, who encouraged the cultivation of this efficient plant. Potatoes contain most of the vitamins needed for sustenance and can provide it to nearly 10 people on an acre of land.
The potato became important in Ireland before it did in other European countries or the American colonies. Its identification with Ireland led to its being called the “Irish potato,” a nickname that persists in the U.S. today.
By the middle of the 19th century the potato was an important staple crop in northern Europe, the British Isles, North America, and to a lesser extent elsewhere
By the 1800s, Irish peasants were eating a daily average of 10 potatoes per person, approximately 80 percent of the calories in their diet. Potato fodder was fed to their animals, animals which provided milk, meat and eggs to supplement their diet.
In the 1840s, three successive years of late blight and heavy rains rotted the potato crops in the ground, leaving both peasants and animals hungry. When the animals died for lack of food, milk, meat, and eggs were no longer available. Over one million of Ireland’s 8 million inhabitants died of starvation; almost 2 million emigrated. The population of Ireland was reduced by almost one-fourth, and has never regained its former numbers.
The advent of convenience foods and the mistaken idea that potatoes were fattening led to a drop in potato consumption in the United States in the 1950s. When food researchers began to develop various kinds of processed potatoes, consumption again began to rise.
Potatoes are grown commercially in at least 35 states, but most are grown in the north. Idaho grows 30 percent of the total U.S. potato crop; Washington grows another 20 percent; and Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Colorado, and Oregon round out the top producers.
Today different varieties of potatoes are widely available in U.S. supermarkets. Easy to prepare and affordable, potatoes are both nutritious and delicious.