by Mike Keeler
The Andes were not made for farming. It’s cold and rainy, and the soil is rocky and thin. But when the first humans arrived here, they found a hardy little plant with edible roots, which they called patatas. Thanks to this amazing food source, the Incas were able to establish an empire as early as 1200AD.
The Inca lasted until 1533, when they were wiped out by the Spanish. The conquistadors carried off anything of value. They also grabbed some potatoes for the long sail home. Back in Europe, folks were suspicious of the Indian plant. The roots were hard and tasteless. Some tried eating the leafy parts, and since the plant is a member of the poisonous nightshade family, it caused severe stomach aches and even death. Papas became culinary taboo; they were considered weird and evil; several governments forbade cultivating them.
But then, in 1760, Antoine Augustine Parmentier, a scientist for Louis XV of France, was captured by the Prussians in the Seven Years War. While in a prison camp, he was served a steady diet of spuds. When he returned to Paris, he convinced the King to let him have 100 rocky acres to plant some. The plot produced so much food that everyone was amazed. Parisian chefs soon began inventing novel ways to cook and serve these pommes de terre. Almost overnight, potatoes were la mode all over Europe.
Especially in Ireland. Farmers there found the mighty murphy thrived in the tough soil; a single acre could produce enough food to sustain a family of 10. It was, surely, a miracle. With this incredible bounty, the population of Ireland doubled between 1800 and 1840.
And then. In 1845, folks in Ireland noticed the plants were turning black and smelling bad. Half the harvest was lost. In 1846, more acres were planted in a desperate attempt to recover, and all of it died. A million people starved; a million more emigrated to America. By the next year, Black ‘47, Ireland had essentially collapsed. Over the next decades, almost 5 million more emigrated. By 1890, 2 out of every 5 Irish-born persons lived off-island. By 1900, there were 20 times more Irish living outside of Ireland than in it.
A century on, there are 80 million people of Irish descent dispersed around the globe. Last week they all celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with a pint of Guinness, some corned beef and cabbage, and perhaps a few prata, potatoes. It’s their common bond. And their tragic heritage.
They are all a testament to the prolific power and epic collapse of the Andean patata.