"Little fry, who made thee?"
In the beginning was the potato. How it found its way from the South American highlands into those little sacks of McDonald's fries is a long, adventurous tale, involving Conquistadors, Marie Antoinette, and Thomas Jefferson. Millionaires have been made and millions more have died from dependence on that simple, innocent potato. Here, then, is the story of the spud, which reached its crowning achievement only once it had been paired with oil.
The potato seems to us today to be such a staple food that it is hard to believe that it has only been accepted as edible by most of the Western world for the past 200 years. Our story begins thousands of years ago, in South America—Peru, Ecuador, and the Northern part of Chile, to be exact—where the Andean Incas friespotat1.giffirst discovered potatoes growing wild in the highlands, and were cultivating them as early as 750 BC. As well as being their staple source of food, the Incas also used potatoes for telling time, treating illness and injury, and divination. They worshipped potato deities, and when potato crops failed, the noses and lips of a few unlucky Incas would be mutilated in ceremonies designed to appease the potato gods. Although the Incas did many things with their potatoes, they did not fry them. Instead, their most popular potato dish involved laying them out in the sun for a period of weeks, then trampling on them with their bare feet to get all of the liquids out. Yummy.
Potatoes were a well-kept Incan secret for thousands of years, as were the Incas themselves, until, in the early decades of the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquered the Incan empire and brought some of the strange little tubers back to Spain with them. The Spaniards, however, were not too keen on consuming what they called an "edible stone." Nevertheless, the invading soldiers in South America used the vegetable as emergency provisions, and it was there that the English were introduced to the charming spud. In 1596, Englishman Sir Francis Drake, setting sail for England after having successfully battled the Spanish in the Caribbean, grabbed up some potatoes for the trip, and made a stopover in Virginia to pick up some homesick British colonialists. One of these passengers took a sample of this intriguing plant to his horticulturist friend, John Gerard. Gerard mistakenly believed the potatoes to have come from Virginia, and, described them to the world in his 1597 Herball as Virginia potatoes. In fact, it was not for another century and a half that the potato would even set foot in Virginia, which it did only after having crossed the Atlantic ocean once more, finally arriving in North America in the hands of Irishmen settling in New Hampshire.
In fact, overseas, nobody but the Irish were willing to actually eat this hearty little vegetable. Sir Walter Raleigh was cultivating potatoes on the Emerald Isles as early as 1576, but when he presented them to Queen Elizabeth, it was a disaster: the cook served the greens to the Queen and threw away the tubers. She was not pleased, and rejected the disgusting meal. Although this was bad news for the struggling staple, it was not the only negative publicity it was to receive in Europe. The Scots found no mention of the potato in the Bible and deemed the vegetable unholy; horticulturists discovered it to be in the same family as such plants as belladonna and feared that it was poisonous; the innocent potato was even thought to be a cause of leprosy when it was found that a substance in the tuber (solanine) could result in a skin-rash. The Irish, however, could not afford to be so cautious. They were suffering from inadequate food supplies, and the tuber grew fabulously in their climate. Possibly as a result of it's popularity in Ireland and concurrent population explosion, the misunderstood potato even became known as an aphrodisiac. In 1733, the English seedsman Stephen Switzer summed up...