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Throughout history, there has been a lot of social class limitations when it comes to eating certain foods.  As I mentioned on my page about bread, white vs. brown,  the  attitude towards the potato was the same also. Around 1500 the European aristocrats felt that this ugly tubor was unsuitable for them; but, it was fine for the working peasants.  The potato was ranked the same as pig food in their eyes.

French scholar, Denis Diederot, in his 18th century book, "Encyclopedie" stated that, "The potato is rightly held responsible for flatulence. But what is flatulence to the vigorous organs of peasants and workers?"  Later on, the French changed their minds  publishing all-potato cookbooks and having real competition going on regarding mashed potatoes. (I'll get to that later.)

Ugly as they looked,  potatoes were nutritious.  The Russian elites ordered their peasants to eat them. In Italy, the Catholic church urged it's followers to eat them.  But, the English were very slow and reluctant to accept the potato. Why? Basically, because of it's association with the Irish.

The Irish were the first to embrace this ugly tuber, while the rest of Europe was thinking it was gross.  However, with the Irish, the potato was their staple food, not bread!  So much so, that the men grew their thumbnails long in order to help them peel potatoes better.  The average Irishman in the late 1700's ate approximately 10 lbs. of potatoes a day.

English Protestants thought this was disgusting to have the potato as the staple food and not bread.  One particular critic was William T. Cobbett, who believed that wheat bread was the natural food of most men and to replace bread with this gross, dirty root was unthinkable. He claimed that eating potatoes made the Irish into doglike creatures who were content to just do nothing but sleep and reproduce.  The potato was nicknamed, "Lazy Root" and this is how the association today with being a couch potato or potato head originates.

But, the main motive for condemning the potato-eating Irish was a political one.  You see, one acre of potatoes provided an Irish family of 6 members one entire year of food.  Because of this, Irish peasants gained a lot more independence from British landlords (who controlled Ireland back then) and had more time for enjoying life, and to challenge their status as slaves to the Brits in their own land. In an article in 1822 from the Edinburgh Review, it said, "So long as Ireland was only occupied by a million, or a million and a half, of starving wretches, it was a comparatively easy task to hold them in servitude."  But the potato's abundance made physical oppression of the Irish masses no longer easy for the British land barons.

So, by the time the Irish potato famine came in 1845, nearly 1/3 of the Irish population relied on potatoes to live.  Within 2 years of the blight, over 1 million people had died,  and 1 million left the country.

Now as I mentioned above, the French had a totally different view of the potato by now. While England was still trying to accept it, back in France, they were printing cook books dedicated to potatoes.  They were declaring eating potatoes a patriotic duty and planting potatoes mandatory.  Marie Antoinette tried to make potatoes chic by wearing potato flowers in her hair.

By the end of the 20th century, French chef, Joél Robuchon, was famous for his creation called purée de pommes de terre.  We know this better as mashed potatoes!

In fact, there was a battle among French chefs regarding who had the best mashed potatoes.  Jacques Barbery of the Le Café Marly in Paris, said that his version was better than Robuchon's because his had 49% butter and cream, whereas Robuchon's only had 25%, plus he also used olive oil.  Another chef named Bernard Loiseau, claimed that he invented purée de pommes de terre  and  had been it for years before at his cafe La Côte D'Or. 

What was the secret to good mashed potatoes? Is it the butter and cream? Some feel that Robuchon's mashed potatoes' secret was really in the potatoes themselves.  He used a potato called la ratte, traditionally grown in Northern France.  In North America this potato is called la princess.

 

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Source: "In The Devil's Garden. A Sinful History of Forbidden Food"
By Stewart Lee Allen
Ballantine Publishing Group © 2002

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