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How the humble potato gained world fame. Indians grew the plant that came to feed many nations

THE American Indians were the world's great farmers, says Jack Weatherford, author of the book ``Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World.'' Tomatoes, beans, and other vegetables they harvested were brought back to the Old World by early European explorers, along with the gold, silver, and furs.

Perhaps the most stunning example of the New World's impact other cultures is the story of the Andean potato.

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The potato, says Mr. Weatherford, was responsible for changing the European economy and the cuisines of many countries.

``The Andean potato, together with maize corn from Mexico, turned out to be the `miracle crops,''' he comments.

``Without the potato, the Soviet Union would never have become a world power,'' Wea therford continues. Today the Soviet Union grows and consumes more potatoes than any other country in the world.

``Germany would not have fought two world wars, and northern Europe and the Benelux countries would not have one of the world's highest standards of living.''

WEATHERFORD, who spent several years following the trail of American-Indian foods around the world, has compiled a dazzling survey of all that the Indians have given to many countries and what we are learning from them still.

``Before the discovery of America, the world depended on grain crops such as wheat, rye, barley, and oats in Europe and in the Near East, rice in the Far East, and sorghum and millet in southern Africa.

``Greece, Rome, Persia, and Egypt all had successful empires primarily because of their control of grain production.

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``As long as the Old World depended on grain crops - with periodic famines from weather in the northern countries - the great population and power centers remained in the warmer countries clustered around the Mediterranean, where the grains flourished.

``Russia, the German states, England, and Scandinavia, all were waiting for their chance,'' he explains, but they needed a consistent supply of nutritious, cheap food to sustain them.

``The answer was in the American plants,'' says Weatherford. But neither potato nor corn was a big hit at the beginning.

EUROPEANS were not interested in root crops. They were accustomed to grains that could be milled and baked into bread or eaten as porridge.

So for two centuries the potato was little more than a curiosity, eaten by upper classes as a novelty food.

Not until the peasants were forced to grow potatoes in the 18th century did they learn that a field of potatoes produces more food and more nutrition more reliably and with less labor than the same field planted in grain.

In its gradual conquest of Europe, the potato's popularity moved from West to East - starting in Ireland, then spreading through the British Isles into Europe.

``The Russians didn't adopt it widely until the 1830s and 1840s,'' says Weatherford, ``but then they became as devoted converts as the Irish.

``With the new calorie source, the potato-fed armies of Frederick of Prussia and Catherine of Russia began pushing against their neighbors'' and were able to become more competitive and free from the economic, cultural, and political pressures from the south.

``Power shifted toward Germany and Great Britain, and away from France and Spain, until finally, all were eclipsed [economically] by Russia.

``Russia quickly became and remains the world's greatest producer and consumer of potatoes. Its adoption of the potato as its staple food preceded its rise as a world power,'' he remarks.

Weatherford does not give full credit to the potato for the population and health boom of the Old World.

Other food crops, numbering more than 300, were transported to the Old World, providing a fuller range of sustenance to the diet.

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