Arts and Leisure

The Noble Spud: 7 Fun Facts About the Potato

The potato wasn’t always a beloved staple throughout the world, a cherished tradition mashed with gravy at Thanksgiving and fried to a crisp at McDonald’s.

Potatoes weren’t served at the White House until Thomas Jefferson got elected president. The French actually made growing them illegal. And for decades, New Englanders thought them only fit for livestock.

Here, then, are seven fun facts about the noble spud.

1. Sweet potatoes got (back) here first.

The first sweet potato came to Europe in the 1600s on a Spanish ship. They were originally cultivated in South and Central America, and even in what is now Louisiana and Georgia

Spanish farmers grew them and sold them in England, where the grateful English thought they had aphrodisiacal qualities.

Botanical illustration of North American sweet potatoes c.1843-1846; Pomme de terre d’Amérique

In the 16th century, “potato” meant “sweet potato,” but then its identity got mixed with the white, or Irish, potato in the 17th century. Old English cookbooks that refer to “potatoes” generally mean “sweet potatoes,” but sometimes it isn’t clear.

English cookbook author Hannah Glasse, for example, includes several recipes for “potato pudding” in her 1747 The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. One recipe instructs the cook to beat the potatoes and add butter, white wine or an orange, and sugar. She means sweet potato, right? You would think.

Virginians began planting sweet potatoes in 1648, well before the white, or Irish, potato. Sweet potatoes didn’t really arrive in New England until 1764. For an entire generation – 70 years – New Englanders viewed sweet potatoes as a luxury item, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink.

2. People called it ‘the Devil’s apple.’

In Europe at first, only Irish and Spanish people ate the white potato, which also came to Europe from the New World on Spanish ships. Everywhere else in Europe, they fed it to their farm animals.  Some even feared it was poisonous, which is how it got the nickname “the Devil’s apple.”

By about 1750, farmers all over New England were planting the lowly spud. But for a long time the potato was just food for livestock and the poor.

Caricature of a potato-earing immigrant

Then, during his presidency, Thomas Jefferson served French fries at the White House. He had learned about them in Paris while serving as minister to France. After Jefferson elevated the potato’s status, a flood of immigrants from potato-eating countries, notably Ireland, boosted the popularity of the white potato.

Still, it took a while for the mashed potato to take a central role in the Thanksgiving feast. In 1827, the godmother of Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Hale, didn’t mention potatoes when describing 23 classic New England Thanksgiving foodstuffs. But taters eventually made their way to New England cuisine, in chowders, stews, stuffings, boiled dinners and tots.

By the late 19th century, another New England author, Mary Ellen Chase, wrote that 99 out of 100 Maine families would have stared incredulously at a dinner without a potato. And in 1896, cookbook author Frannie Farmer called it “preeminent among the vegetables.”

3. France once banned the cultivation of tubers.

Unlike the Spanish and the Irish, the French in the 18th century despised the potato, thinking it caused leprosy. In 1748 the French government made it a crime to even plant potatoes.

But then a French pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was taken prisoner during the Seven Years War (1756-63). Prison food consisted largely of potatoes, which didn’t give him leprosy and, in fact, sustained him until his release.

Antoine-Auguste Parmentier, By François Dumont

Back in Paris, Parmentier promoted the benefits of the potato. He served potatoes at dinners for influential guests, gave potato flowers to Marie Antoinette and published papers about the virtues of the spud. Thomas Jefferson, while representing the American revolutionaries in France, became pro-potato after sampling pommes frites.

4. The first U.S. spud was planted in a New Hampshire town.

A persecuted minority, the Ulster Scots-Irish, brought the white potato to an ungrateful (at first) New England in 1719. The year before, the Rev. William Boyd sailed from Ulster to Massachusetts to ask for land for the unfortunate Scots-Irish families. He probably figured the Puritans would sympathize with another group of persecuted Protestants.

Boyd brought a petition signed by the heads of 319 families, all but four of whom could sign their names. Gov. Samuel Shute liked the idea. He envisioned Scots-Irish pioneers settling on the frontiers of Maine and New Hampshire, buffering the colony from hostile French and Indians.

iconic-food-first-parish-church-potato

The First Parish Church in East Derry, N.H.

In the summer of 1718, five ships of Scots-Irish immigrants from Ulster arrived in Boston to an uncertain welcome. The Puritan leaders did sympathize with their fellow Protestants.  But the newcomers came from an impoverished land, and many Puritans questioned whether they could support themselves. And so the Puritans encouraged them to move along.

Some of the immigrants who arrived that summer of 1718 came as congregations led by clergymen. One congregation had the Rev. James McGregor as its leader.

A group led by McGregor soon settled in Nutfield, N.H., which later became Londonderry. McGregor planted the first potatoes in America. He brought seed potatoes from Ireland and planted them in Londonderry Common Ground (Derry today). They are acknowledged to be the first potatoes planted in the United States.

5. Schoolchildren in Maine take Potato Vacation.

In the 1940s, the state of Maine produced more potatoes than any other state. Most of them grew in Aroostook County, which is larger than three U.S. states (Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware, if you’re wondering).

Aroostook County, known in Maine as “The County,” borders Canada and has a strong Acadian tradition. Some bilingual residents speak Acadian French and celebrate the annual Ploye Festival. The County also has a Potato Blossom Festival, honoring its biggest cash crop.

Children gathering potatoes on a large farm near Caribou in 1939. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Potato planting began in Aroostook County by white settlers in the early 1800s. Aroostook soil, geologically different from the rest of New England, is well drained and fertile. Combined with the cool climate and 40 inches of rain a year, the County has ideal conditions for growing potatoes.

The arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s created Maine’s Potato Empire. Maine in general and Aroostook County in particular were the leading producer of potatoes in the United States until 1950. The decline of the Potato Empire came about because of competition from Idaho and western farms that benefit from federally subsidized irrigation projects. Mechanization and consolidation of farms into corporate agriculture didn’t help, either.

Children taking a Potato Vacation in the County, 1939. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The County’s potato production now amounts to a quarter of its peak. Still, Aroostook County still produces more potatoes than any other county in the United States, and schoolchildren still take a Potato Vacation in the fall to harvest potatoes.

6. Mr. Potato Head wasn’t always plastic.

Brooklyn-born George Lerner invented Mr. Potato Head, but he only designed the facial features. Kids originally used them with real potatoes.

Mr. Potato Head from Toy Story in the Pixar Play Parade

Lerner began making Mr. Potato Head in 1949, but he didn’t get much attention until Providence-based Hasbro started to market him nationally in 1952. As the first toy advertised on television, Mr. Potato Head was wildly successful. Hasbro sold 1 million the first year. Mrs. Potato Head came along in 1953, then Brother Spud and Sister Yam. Soon the family had Spud-ettes:  a car, a boat-trailer, a stroller, pets.

Mr. Potato Head went plastic in 1964 after the government issued new safety regulations — the pieces were too sharp). Parents complained about rotting spuds.

7. The spud got banned from NYMEX.

In the 1970s, traders, speculators and even potato inspectors often manipulated the market for Maine potatoes. In 1976, the potato got banned from the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) because of a swindle in potato futures contracts. Millions of pounds of Maine potatoes rotted in warehouses that year because two groups of millionaires played chicken with the potato.

J.R. Simplot

It started when J.R. Simplot decided he’d manipulate the potato price on NYMEX. Simplot supplied half of McDonald’s French fries and sometimes bought as much as half of Maine’s potato crop. His Idaho license plate read MR SPUD.

In 1975, Simplot thought Maine potato prices were too high. So he formed a group to sell Maine potatoes short. To sell short you sell contracts to buy at a high price and then buy low later to cover your obligations.

The contracts would come due on May 17, 1976. But two produce wholesalers, Casper Mayrsohn and Harold Collin, got wind of Simplot’s scheme. They formed their own cartel and started buying potatoes to drive the prices up.

maine-potato-war-simplot-warehouse

Warehouse belonging to J.R. Simplot, the man who started the Maine potato war.

In April 1976 Simplot realized the potato crop would be smaller than expected. That would drive prices up, an outcome he did not desire. So he tried to create the impression of a potato glut. He started shipping potatoes in roller cars — train cars filled with produce with no customers. Traders viewed roller cars as an indicator of excess produce.

Mayrsohn retaliated by buying up potatoes, along with all available cars on the Bangor-Aroostook Railway. Up to the final day of trading, Simplot kept selling and Mayrsohn kept buying.

By then, Simplot had promised to sell 100 million pounds of Maine potatoes while only about 50 million pounds existed. Needless to say, he defaulted, violating the sanctity of the contract upon which futures exchanges depend. Simplot’s default damaged NYMEX’s reputation so badly that regulators wouldn’t let it trade potato futures anymore.

If you enjoyed this story, you may want to buy the New England Historical Society’s newest ebook, 21 Historic Thanksgiving Foods. Available now from Amazon. (Click here.)

 

Images: J.R. Simplot By http://www.simplot.com/company/origins_founder.cfm, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17616524; Mr. Potato Head by Loren Javier via Flickr, CC By-ND 2.0 Generic.

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