“What has eyes but does not see?” crooned the singer. “Does not see, does not see.”
“A potato, stupid!” Lena bellowed from the back seat. When she was five Lena took great pleasure in beating the chorus girls to their punch lines.
“A potato, a potato, a potato,” cooed the backup singers as Lena laughed. It was the schmaltzy “Silly Songs” again, a grubby kiddie-music cassette making its millionth passage through the bowels of our tape deck.
“Play it again!” yelled Lena, and I did; not because I liked the song but because I love my daughter. The song is all wrong. My sympathies are entirely with the potato. Who are we to call the potato blind?
Look how the Spaniards behaved when they discovered Peru. They were so dazzled by the glitter of the gold they stole that they had no eyes for the potato. Pound for pound the potato has proven to be one of the most productive and nutritious vegetable foods ever developed by humankind; a veritable buried treasure Potatoes provide complex carbohydrates, starches, vitamins, minerals, and proteins and can be cultivated under a wide variety of environmental conditions. They can be stored fresh for long periods of time against the threat of famine. Sun-dried, Inca-style, as chuño potatoes can last almost indefinitely in storage. And potatoes aren’t hard to grow.
Potatoes are not typically sown from seed, but they can be. Pre-Columbian Americans developed many distinct potato varieties, or cultivars, by cross pollinating different wild strains, harvesting the fruits, and growing out the seeds to see what kind of tubers they new hybrid plants would yield. Desirable potato varieties are easily cloned and propagated by slicing a potato into parts, each piece with its own two or three eyes, and planting them deep in well-drained soil. There’s enough water and energy stored in a potato tuber to send green shoots to the soil’s surface without irrigation. If a potato plant’s vigorous roots have a chance to tap into sub-soil moisture, it may not need to be watered even once before setting a bountiful harvest. You can’t eat gold.
In the end, the Spaniards squandered the gold they stole from Peru financing religious wars. It fell to Spain’s dread enemy, protestant England, to recognize the real treasure of Peru by cultivating the potato. But even the English didn’t perceive the commercial potential of the potato at first. Some of the blame for this blindness must be laid on cooks who misunderstood the strange new plant and steamed the foliage instead of the tubers. Diners got sick from a toxic alkaloid called solanine that’s naturally concentrated in the potato plant’s leaves. Solanine is chemically related to nicotine. More to blame were the theologians of the day. Protestants were reluctant to plant potatoes because, having not been mentioned in the Bible, potatoes were imagined to be “of Satan.”
Medieval Europeans were ignorant, not stupid, and when they initially saw the potato in a diabolical light their botany was not as bigoted as you might at first suspect. The potato is in the Nightshade family, or Solanaceae, along with Datura, Belladonna, and tobacco, three potent vision inducing plants much favored by wizards, shamans, and witches. (Before tobacco was dumbed down by the Marlborough Man some strains of tobacco were quite psychoactive, and passing the pipe meant something!) The potato’s flowers look similar to the blooms of other more notorious nightshades. A few Catholics tried cultivating potatoes despite its diabolical cousins, but as a hedge against their spiritual gamble they planted their crops amid prayer on Good Friday and irrigated the fields with holy water. I’ve never used holy water on my farm but I can tell you Good Friday is a later planting date for potatoes than I’d choose.
This year Good Friday was March 21st. Next year it will be April 12th. In California, potatoes perform best when they’re grown under the cool conditions of late winter that most closely mimic the high Andean altitudes of their wild ancestors, so I prefer to plant my crop in February. A farmer can plant potatoes several weeks before the last frost to ensure a long growing season and a maximum yield. Soil is a good insulator. It will take the potato’s new shoots a couple of weeks to reach the surface and by then winter will have passed. Even if the first potato shoots get burned back by a late frost, the tuber usually contains enough energy to send up a second set of stems quickly. Potatoes planted into warm weather never yield quite as well and are more prone to disease and insect pressure.
Once the potato was adopted in the British Isles it became one of the most efficient engines driving the industrial revolution. Potato cultivation could be carried out with less persistent labor and on fewer acres than other types of medieval farming. Peasants were freed up from the land just in time to be wage slaves in the factories spinning wool. Rural people were shoved off the land to make room for the sheep that would provide the wool for the factories. A meager diet of potatoes, supplemented with a few hardy vegetables from a cottage garden and a little goat milk from goats pastured in ditches and alleys was all the Irish working class could produce on their reduced lands, but it kept them strong enough to survive and multiply. The nutritious potato enabled the process of enclosure and suburbanization to move forward. The British lords had unwittingly come into possession of one of the world’s miracle crops, but they couldn’t see beyond exploiting their Catholic subjects in Ireland any more than the Spanish Comquistadores could with the Indios in America.
The British didn’t know it at first, but when they were planting potato tubers they were also sowing the seeds of disaster. While the Andean farmers cultivated a rainbow of different varieties Europeans cultivated only a few genotypes. When disease struck the potato crop almost every plant died from the Volga to Donegal Bay. Lack of genetic diversity meant there were no blight-resistant potato clones. Ireland was the hardest hit; over a million people died and another million were motivated by famine to emigrate.
Today Ireland is on the upswing, but the consensus euphemism for Peru’s condition is that it’s a “developing nation.” It is politically charged to call culturally rich but materially impoverished former colonies “recovering nations.” Some tourists compare the squalid poverty they encounter in modern Peru to the splendid ruins of Machu Picchu, the mysterious Atacama mummies or the astronomically significant mathematics of the Nazca Lines and they’re left sad and puzzled. Other people, like Erick Von Däniken author of the worldwide best seller Chariot of the Gods, have answers. The Nazca Lines must have been cut across the desert floor to guide UFOS in for landing, they reason. Obviously, the surprising wisdom of Peru’s past civilizations CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! The little brown people who patiently, intelligently worked for over 4000 years to transform a bitter tuberous herb into a vegetable of world-wide importance are left invisible in the glow of more evolved space beings.
Granted, Von Däniken was a sloppy, sensationalistic researcher, but the huge sales figures for his book demonstrate that his instincts were right in sync with the technophilic values we’ve acquired in the mainstream. How could wisdom come out of the dirt, anyway? And so what if we ruin this planet? –No sweat. We can build a rocket ship and fly to another one.
What has eyes but does not see? Silly songs aside, it’s not the potato that’s blind.
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin