Rebecca Earle, Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato, Cambridge University Press, 2020. ISBM: 9781108484060, hardback, $28.95CAD. Available as an Adobe eBook at $20.00CAD.
By Mike Timonin
Potatoes. Imagine Samwise Gamgee expounding on their features, and laugh. But consider: potatoes are the fourth more important food crop in the world right now, behind rice, corn, and wheat. Then consider that prior to the 1500s potatoes were grown in only one part of the globe, the Andean territory of the Incan Empire, while the other three core crops were widely known and grown throughout Eurasia. How did a humble tuber grow from its anonymous roots to the fourth most important crop worldwide? Rebecca Earle lays out the full story in her excellent book, Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato.
One of the enduring myths of the potato is that European peasant farmers were highly resistant to the new crop and needed to be tricked into growing it by Enlightenment thinkers in the 1700s. Earle explodes this myth, showing that potatoes were widely grown throughout Europe by the end of the 1500s. She uses diaries, cookbooks, and parish records to document this. Potatoes were, she argues, an ideal crop for European farmers. First, they are nutrient dense, especially compared to other staple crops like wheat. They grow in marginal soil, allowing an expansion of crops without an expansion of the farm. And, best of all, they were a novel crop and thus exempt from religious and civil taxes—the farmer could take the whole profit of the crop and not share it with anyone. Logically, then, the potato spread quickly with farmers, and enlightenment thinkers were forced to catch up.
The story of potatoes that Earle tells is tied very closely to a post-Enlightenment line of thinking that ensuring the health of a society is a key function of government. As large militaries became standard, large bodies of healthy people became necessary, and potatoes became a critical element of ensuring that bodily health. During the total war period of World Wars I and II, the potato was presented by all the nations involved as a heroic tuber, helping to maintain the critical health of the citizenry while allowing other food to be sent to the troops. After World War II, however, the potato began to fall from favor, especially as consumption shifted to fried rather than boiled or baked. Suddenly the potato was a villain, slipping carbohydrates and fats into our diets, and consequently government food agencies began warning against the vegetable they had previously championed. This trajectory is critical to Earle’s broader discussion of food science and food politics. By telling the story of the potato, Earle also underlines the story of how governments affect the ways that we eat and interact with food.
Earle’s writing is academic and aimed at an academic audience. Despite this, the book is engaging and well organized. A general audience will be able to enjoy and appreciate this text. Additionally, the book has abundant illustrations and each chapter contains at least one potato related recipe as well—an excellent addition to any food-related history text. The nautical history of the book is tangential. Large navies required potential sailors to be healthy and potatoes contributed to that. However, Earle argues convincingly that the spread of potatoes throughout the non-European world was largely the work of sailors (and not, as the diplomats of the time would contend, the deliberate efforts of European powers to spread the gospel of the potato). Potatoes are an ideal vegetable for sailors, retaining flavor and nutrition over a long period of time. When they become inedible due to rot and sprouting, they become a tradable commodity as seed stock, and so the potato spread throughout the territory travelled by European ships.
The most interesting element of Earle’s argument, I feel, is the contention that potatoes highlight the question of how much control governments ought to have over their citizens’ diets. Earle lays out a timeline in which potatoes were, initially, reviled by European thinkers because they allowed farmers to generate large crops for little effort. Then, during the late 1700s, the potato was presented as a wonder food, because it allowed the government to provide cheap food for poor citizens, precisely because they could generate large crops for little effort. Later, potatoes were reviled because they generated less profit for merchants than other crops. During the World Wars, however, potatoes were presented as a heroic vegetable, allowing civilians to eat healthy, tasty food that freed-up other crops to be sent to the soldiers. Since the world wars, potatoes are again viewed skeptically because they are less nutritionally dense than other foods and they popularly prepared through deep-frying. Should governments provide food to citizens and should that food be potatoes? Should governments tell citizens what foods to eat and should potatoes be included? Earle asks these provocative questions. She also tells a fascinating story about how the potato spread from a tiny portion of the Andes to conquer the world.