A potato story

The French really didn’t take to the potato, until a cheekily orchestrated government move made the proletariat love them.

The potato is among the world’s more prosaic vegetables. While they are a ubiquitous presence, sprouting away in the vegetable drawers of even the most neglected bachelor pad kitchens, widely consumed across the world, and beloved by all when sliced into batons and fried, potatoes are nobody’s idea of glamorous. No one ever boasts about scoring some rare heirloom potatoes at a farmer’s market, and they have yet to experience their moment of foody trendiness, joining broccolini and morels in the small plates section of trendy menus. They are a delicious, dependable, and slightly boring staple food. But there was a time when potatoes were a strange and mistrusted fruit, alien to most Europeans.

French spudPotatoes were first domesticated widely in South America, and brought to Europe during the age of exploration. Although potatoes had been a staple crop in the New World, and were consumed by explorers, they were met with varying degrees of resistance when they arrived in Europe. In Russia, England and Ireland the working class took to growing and consuming potatoes with enthusiasm, although amongst the upper classes they were mistrusted and widely considered a sloppy and degenerate food. In Spain, Italy and much of Western Europe, they became a culinary fad, before gradually being incorporated into a small handful of staple dishes like Spain’s torta, a widely popular sort of potato omelet. But it was in France that the potato’s story most interests me. In a land so nationally obsessed with bread, the potato’s culinary future quickly turned from a matter of idle curiosity into a critical issue, its virtue and edibility widely contested as it became yet another pawn in the preamble to revolution.

King Louis XIV’s royal botanists decided that the potato would be an ideal food for peasants. At a time when bread was so scarce, potatoes must have seemed like a godsend. While wheat took many acres and lots of time, attention, and water to grow successfully, a peasant could grow enough potatoes to feed his family all year long by burying some sprouts in a narrow backyard plot, and forgetting about them for a few months, at which point he could dig up a wealth of tubers which would keep in his cupboards indefinitely, unlike fickle and quickly staling bread. There was only one thing preventing potatoes becoming the mascot of the French working classes; the peasants hated them.

Desperate to prevent the inevitable revolution closing in around them by providing their subjects with a more nutritious and consistently available staple food, the French court tried everything to popularize potatoes. The government held contests where famous inventors and chefs competed for cash prizes and tried to come up with uses that could popularize the humble spud. Court physician Antoine Parmentier invented a famous dish that he said would capitalize on their nutritional value, which was essentially a fancy French Shepard’s pie. Marie Antoinette even incorporated little strands of starlike potato flowers into one of her famously ornate updos. But it was all to no avail. The French populace still rejected the potato.

Then, quite suddenly, some time after the revolution, the potato caught on in a big way, becoming an extremely popular thing to plant and eat. There are a few historical explanations for this trend, not the least of which is the invention of the French fry, but none of them are proven historical fact. The most probable story also happens to be my favorite.

Apparently in the early days of post-revolutionary democracy, the Parisian government decided to give the potato another shot. After all, their city was still struggling from widespread malnutrition, and the pro-royalist farmers weren’t exactly forthcoming with the rations. So, with an instinctive understanding of group psychology that far outpaced that of their nobel predecessors, they decided to try something drastic.

In the heart of Paris lies the Isle Saint Louis, a center of life, culture, and commerce in the city since the first Galic villagers constructed their temple where Notre Dame stands today. In the post-Revolutionary era the island was a crowded marketplace, with stalls crammed with every imaginable variety of fish, fruit, and fowl filling the square that now days teams with tourists taking pictures of themselves mugging in front of the great church. Today, if you walk past the tourists, weaving around the back of the courthouses and police stations and the half-deserted flower market, you will find a little triangular square that juts out over the back of the island. It is a beautiful place, surrounded by sloping grey stone Parisian apartment buildings and small cafes, a cluster of dogwood trees scattered throughout the center. You would never imagine that it used to be a king’s vegetable garden.

Because of its proximity to the palace at the Tuileries, the square had long been used as a sort of kitchen garden for the royal family. When Louis moved the court to Versailles, it became a center for experimental agriculture, where botanists experimented with new varieties of plants. After the revolution, the garden became the property of the Mairie de Paris, who decided to fill it with potatoes. But they took a psychologically subtile approach to getting people interested in consuming those potatoes.

Instead of promoting them as a virtuous alternative to bread, the Mairie warned its citizens that they shouldn’t so much as think of consuming potatoes. There was an armed guard keeping watch over the plot at all hours of the day and night. Wild rumors began to circulate the markets, that they were growing an exotic love apple behind the walls of the garden, a delicious vegetable so delicate and tasty that the upper classes wanted to keep it to themselves. Then, one night, when the potatoes were ready for harvest, the guard pretended to fall asleep on his rounds. Instantly, the garden was stripped of plants, which were smuggled and transplanted in all the corners of the city. Over the next few months, the potato gradually went from being an exotic bit of contraband to a popular side dish, mashed, gratined, and fried into ubiquity in cafes throughout France.

So the next time you dig into a pile of French fries, or slide off the crunchy top of potatoes gratin, thank the forces of the revolution, which brought the French people liberte, egalite fraternite, and, most importantly, pommes frites.

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