(Fun old article I wrote 2 years ago for Independence Day)
This week, in honor of the Declaration of Independence declaring “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, I took the liberty to pursue happiness and dig up one of my potato plants (potatoe in case you are Dan Quayle). Above the soil the browning leaves indicated my labor had brought about some spuds underneath.
As you can see in just a few months I turned ¼ of a potato into 7 delicious Yukon golds (9 if you include the bite size ones). These 7 potatoes represent thousands of years of knowledge, genetic manipulation, and labor; plus my time tilling, planting, and watering to transform them soon into a meal my family could enjoy.
The potato, since it first sailed from Peru across the Atlantic Ocean on a Spanish ship around 1570, has brought millions upon millions of individuals needed nourishment and an escape from the perils of weather, hunger, and government plunder. The new food staple brought nutrition to a European diet that arguably was worse than that of hunter and gatherers. What is unique about the potato is it factors in perfectly for human sustenance. In fact a man can easily subsist solely on a diet of potatoes with an occasional splash of milk for any vitamins missed by this tuber. Not much of a life, but still a life.
When first brought to Europe this tuber had dozens of benefits. The potato could weather government destruction by being kept underground away from plunder during a war, even away from a thief or pesky taxman attempting to reap the spoils of a peasant’s labor. In addition to theft through war and taxes, peasants were typically forced onto worthless land unwanted by the ruling class. This was especially the case in Ireland, but the potato knows no limits and flourished to feed the thousands of hungry souls.
This escape from hunger is a huge step in the improvement of life, liberty and happiness. Without the threat of hunger, and the ability to save for future needs, man is able to move onto larger and greater endeavors rather than just subsisting on the land to live another day.
In 1783, across the sea on the oppressive Isles Americans had just overthrown, there had been a debate by those in power about whether to let the potato become a stable crop of the British held islands. Many argued against allowing the potato to be grown for the reason grain/ bread was the crop of civilization. If grain crops failed populations of peasants would be kept in check. Limited grain supplies were Gods plan for population control. Limited grain meant less children surviving birth and fewer people surviving the cold winter. Others argued on philosophy against the potato, it was so easy to grow, “since the Irishman are and grew his own potatoes, and since the potatoes (unlike wheat flour) could not easily be stored or traded, they never became commodities and were therefore, like, him subject to no authority but natures own” (pg.205: “The Botany of Desire” Michael Pollan).
Alongside the ideas of individualism and liberty making possible the industrial revolution, perhaps it was the potato that too contributed by allowing the individual to escape the toils of hunger and focus on their individual pursuits. Prior to the potato thousands of more labor hours, and therefore men were needed to feed themselves and others. Europe was plagued with famine due crop failure from weather or war. Grain crops were not reliable and took many more hands and labor hours to grow than a potato. Releasing individuals from the land to work in factories, to pursue and create greater value elsewhere was a huge increase in energy available to progress man into the future.
Perhaps two more noteworthy facts related to liberty and the individual before we all head back to work from the great weekend celebration of Independence.
Perhaps an urban legend but after a few trips to France, Thomas Jefferson was so impressed with the way the potato could be cooked he involuntarily popularized it in America. He would regularly serve the fried spud in the manner of the French to guests. This fried spud in the manner of the French was cut up potatoes deep fried in oil. Perhaps you had some of these this weekend?
Finally, the most interesting part about the potato is its transition from wild poisonous weed to cultivation. The original tuber was loaded with solanine and tomatine, very natural and poisonous chemicals. Prior to discovering less poisonous spuds, hunter gathers in South America could only eat potatoes with a “gravy” of clay mud. The chemicals in the mud would attach to the toxins and “more” safely pass through the body without being absorbed. It is only through thousands of years of genetic selection by man that we have a potato that we can safely eat.
Hope everyone’s Independence weekend was a blast and I hope you got to eat the liberating tuber known affectionately as the potato.