Five Centuries Prove Adaptability of New World's “Tater”

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Generally speaking, I am not a finicky eater, but I am particular about potatoes. My husband can vouch for the fact that I have sent many baked potatoes back to restaurant kitchens because the insides of the spud were clammy and darkened — evidently the result of having been prepared hours in advance.

Restaurant suppliers now actually sell “Prebaked Potatoes” which are oven baked, then quick frozen. The wholesale publicity sheet on the 20th-century marvel gushes, “this process maintains the great baked potato taste, and the texture kids love, even when reconstituted in the microwave.” (Are the kids reconstituted in the microwave, or do only the kids love these prebaked wonders?)

Anyway, a good baked potato is a laudable food which was probably first enjoyed by Native Americans who let them cook in the ashes of their campfires. Indigenous to South America, the potato was taken to Europe in 1500's. The strange edible was not immediately made a staple of European cooking. Queen Elizabeth's cook, a little mystified by the newcomer, prepared the leaves of the plant and discarded the bulb.

The name “potato” is derived from the Caribbean Indian word for sweet potato, “batata,” which the Spanish changed to “patata” and the English corrupted to “potato.” Most people on the continent initially were afraid to eat potatoes, believing them to cause leprosy.

Botanically the potato is kin to the poisonous nightshade (as are tomatoes and the eggplant), a fact which may partly explain folks' suspicion of the plant. By the mid-1700's, though, Europeans were eating potatoes. Their use in fact was so prevalent in Ireland that when a blight destroyed the potato crops between 1845 and 1847 about 750,000 persons died of starvation and disease.

During that period, hundreds of thousands of people left Eire, coming to the United States. Here they sought out their beloved food. Irish immigrants bought hot roasted potatoes from street vendors in Boston and New York and the nicknames of “mickies” and “murphies” (referring to the potatoes) evolved. The Irish people dug their American/Irish potatoes with spades. From “spade" we get the moniker “spuds."

The white potato had found its way across the Atlantic to Virginia in 1621 and gained acceptance gradually, with Thomas Jefferson being one of its growers and prime promoters in the late 1700's.

Around 1836 the nourishing vegetable was first planted in Idaho by Nez Pierce Indians under the direction of Presbyterian missionary Henry Harmon Spalding. Now Idaho is the nation's number one producer of potatoes.

According to a restaurant industry study in 1988 one of every three meals which Americas eat out includes potatoes. Over 5 billion pounds of french fries are consumed each year in this country. Besides baked potatoes and fries, people might order classic mashed potatoes, potato latkes, potato salad, or a new product: potato ice cream (“no sugar,” “several flavors”).

As one witty poet wrote, “Pray for peace and grace and spiritual food/ For Wisdom and guidance, for all these are good/ But don't forget the potatoes.”