Potatoes - Fun Facts and a Little History


By Nancy Smorch

What a gorgeous day here in West Michigan! Perfect for spending time in the garden. I am going to go out and harvest some of our potatoes to make sure they are handy for breakfast tomorrow morning, when I will cut them up and sauté them with olive oil, butter, salt, and pepper... and maybe even some fresh rosemary to serve alongside some bacon and eggs (Hmm...sounds so good, I may not wait for breakfast - may be a good dinner idea!).

In honor of the potatoes I shall be consuming, here's some great facts about the potato you might not know:

-The potato is a “tuber” which actually means “to swell." It is the tip of an underground stem that swells with stored starch and water.

-Tubers, as they are called, are actually much more nutritious when cooked - raw starch granule resists our digestive enzymes, while gelated starch does not.

-There are over 200 species of potatoes.  They originated in the moist and cool regions of Central and South America.  Spanish explorers brought the potato back to Europe in the late 1500s.

-Because it was a hardy plant and easy to grow, it was grown and eaten quite frequently among the poor.  More potatoes are consumed in the U.S. than any other vegetable.

-"New potatoes” are actually harvested when the plant portion above ground is still green - usually during late spring and early summer.  These potatoes are more moist and sweet and have a shorter “shelf life."

-True mature potatoes are harvested in the fall.  You’ll know they are ready to harvest when the above-ground part of the plant has dried up and turned brown.  You can then leave the potatoes in the ground for several weeks to toughen their skin.

-If stored properly (in a dark, cool place), they can last for months and the flavor gets stronger as it “matures."  According to Harold McGee in "On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen," “slow enzyme action generates fatty, fruity, and flowery notes from cell-membrane lipids.”

-Mr. McGee also notes an interesting fact about the internal black spots you sometimes will see when you cut into a potato.  They are essentially bruises due to the way the were handled.  Some cells may be damaged and a browning enzyme creates tyrosine, and amino acid.

-Ever wonder about the green portions you see on some potatoes?  It’s due to improper growing conditions - when they are exposed to light and form chlorophyll, which is usually a sign of higher alkaloid levels (solanine and chaconine), which can be toxic.  If you have a potato that is green, you should either peel it deeply enough to get well beyond the green part, or just throw it away altogether.

-Have you ever noticed that baked potatoes are a little sweeter?  This is because of the browning reaction - a kind of malty and sweet smell occurs due to the methylbutanal and methional.

-Did you know that french fries did actually originate in France?  I had my doubts, but it turns out, the “pommes frites" are what the French refer to as “fried potatoes,” and may have been produced in France as early as the 19th century.  So, if you are in a restaurant and you see “Pommes Frites” on the menu, it’s simply a fancy name for french fries.

-Interestingly, Prince Edward Island, off the coast of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada, was basically one big potato field a century ago.  Today, Prince Edward Island has about 100,000 acres of potato crops - they grow 30% of Canada’s potatoes.  If you are ever to visit Prince Edward Island, notice how many ways the locals use potatoes - some have even been reported to use it in place of rice in Indian food.

-When potatoes were first brought back to Europe, they weren't embraced as a valuable crop.  It took quite a while for Europeans to feel comfortable with potatoes - they were unfamiliar and somewhat alien to them.  Many of the clergymen said that potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible so they were not meant to be eaten by man.  Also, potatoes weren’t the “prettiest” vegetable, and at that time, many believed that the appearance of a plant was indicative of whether or not that plant would cause disease.  It was even a widespread belief early on that potatoes caused leprosy.

-Eventually the potatoes popularity grew.  In times of famine, when other crops did not produce very well, potatoes still harvested quite well and proved an invaluable food source.  People realized, as in the famine in France in 1709 that they either eat potatoes or starve.  People decided that potatoes weren’t really that bad for being ugly.

-Due to its ease of growing and harvesting, and its tolerance of bad farming conditions, a series of famines in Europe in the following years really showed the value of potatoes.  Governments in some countries distributed handbooks on how to grow potatoes and distributed free seed potatoes.  In some countries, potato crops were even forced by the government, as in Austria - Austrian peasants were threatened with forty lashes if they refused to plant them.

There is much more fascinating history of the potato in Tom Standage’s book, An Edible History of Humanity, if you want to know more about this interesting tuber!