There has been some disturbing news of late coming out of the Vegetable Kingdom that all is not well, that, in fact, there may be a traitor in its midst. This may not strike the average meat eater as surprising, much less worrisome, but for those upstanding vegetables and such others as feel a close kinship with them it may have serious, life-changing implications. And the same might be said about those who graze exclusively in this leafy realm, and who likely consider any slide away from a total commitment to being a wholesome vegetable as tantamount to losing a best friend. As a reporter, it is not my place to judge, but to question, and to get at the root of the issue at hand, impartially and without prejudice. But I confess that this story has hit me in the gut like a loaded potato.
I am referring, of course, to Solanum tuberosum, the humble potato, meek, mild, and non-threatening, at least when not provoked. Unless it’s been all an act. But we must be careful here not to judge the motives or integrity of a species by its family, no matter how suspect, because every species deserves the chance to prove its mettle on its own, and to show there may be more to the nature-nurture debate than evolution is telling us. Sure, the potato got off to a bad start in life. There’s nothing to be done about that now. People had to learn the hard way that the Solanaceae family was never one to be trifled with, including as it does the likes of mandrake, belladonna, tobacco, and jimsonweed, plants you would not want to bring home to your mother, unless she was an evil sorceress. Still, the lovely petunia is also a member of this family, so you can’t blame everything on the sins of the father either.
In researching the family history of the potato for aberrant behaviors, I discovered that it was first domesticated about 8,000 years ago in South America. There are signs it has resented this ever since, and perhaps lost something of the joy it must have experienced while growing wild and free. When it finally reached Europe in the late 16th century, it was said to have been used for non-food purposes. It is not clear what is meant by this. Building materials? Weapons? The original Mr. Potato Head? While we are left to speculate, what is clear is that calling it “the devil’s apple” and shunning it because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible could not have improved its outlook any. Even in hindsight, this religious persecution of the potato seems prejudicial to me, as I have it on good authority that neither asparagus nor artichokes, Jerusalem or otherwise, are mentioned in the Bible either, and I wouldn’t let them anywhere near my plate if God Himself (or Herself) blessed them.
Eventually cooler heads prevailed and the potato was once again declared edible, if not yet fit for a King. All it was deemed fit for in fact was as a substitute for turnips and rutabagas, which in late 18th century France was rather like substituting the Bastille for the guillotine. When the 1785 edition of Bon Jardinier noted that, “The poor should be quite content with this foodstuff,” it was still seen as a major improvement from Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake,” and at least put the potato one rung up from artificial foodstuff.
What is particularly confounding in the history of this era though is how the potato literally saved the people of Ireland from starving, yet is only remembered for its failings. When the blight overwhelmed it in the 1840s, causing the death of millions of potatoes and Irish alike, I couldn’t help but notice that no other vegetables came to the aid of either potatoes or Ireland. Whether due to cowardice or prejudice, I don’t know, but imagine for a moment that you had nothing but broccoli to live on. How long do you think YOU would have held up? I think it could be argued that no other vegetable ever did so much for so many, and with so little respect.
Instead, since then the potato has been subjected to one indignity after another, from cooking it in hot oil to make French fries and potato chips, to claiming it to be the cause of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, weight gain, inflation, and the decline in moral values. Its decline in food value was complete after the Harvard School of Public Health recently announced that we should not even think of the potato as a vegetable, but as a starch. The horror! Offhand, I can imagine no greater insult to the pride of a vegetable than to be called a starch. To have come so far just to be relegated to this sub-class of vegetable is insensitive in the extreme, and I for one think consideration should be given to downgrading Harvard to a sub-class of university for this wanton cruelty.
If it seems that I have lost my impartiality somewhere in the reporting of this story, so be it. I think what we have done to the potato deserves an investigation by the highest court in the land, followed by a full apology and reinstatement into the Vegetable Kingdom with full honors. Traitor? I think it’s we who let the potato down.
Postscript: In the interests of full disclosure, I note here that only four of my five senses support me in this assessment. My sense of taste won’t back me unless I also include in the conversation a half stick of butter, sour cream, three slabs of bacon, cheese, gravy, a 24 oz. T-bone steak, two pints of beer, a heart monitor, and a couch. Then it makes Pavlov’s dog look like it’s got a bad case of dry mouth.