This summer, I became inexplicably obsessed with blue potatoes. Adirondack Blue potatoes, to be precise. It was a brief but powerful love affair, punctuated by violet mashed potatoes and periwinkle potato salad eaten on my fire escape. Like any good summer fling, I look back with fond memories and hazy nostalgia.
My passion for the blue potato was born out of a natural curiosity. In looking through the weekly options from my online CSA/farmer’s market—Farm to People—I simply saw a variety of produce previously unknown to me. That looks cool, I thought to myself. I should try that. And try I did.
What came next was several weeks (or months) of all-things-potato. In addition to the Adirondack Blue potatoes, I stumbled upon a hot pink variety that was casually tossed into a “tricolor blend”. The result was a breakfast plate that more closely resembled a pile of gum-balls than an egg with home fries. Needless to say, I am unlikely to ever again seek out (or even settle for) a simple russet potato.
What I really learned in this passionate process—aside from how exciting neon colored produce can be—was just how far removed we have grown from the potato. Or rather, how we have grown the potato to be so far removed from itself. Unsurprisingly, the history of the potato in America—and across the world—is a story of imperialism, industrialization, and consumerism that is not entirely unique.
Potatoes are widely credited with being a foundation for the rise of Western society. The easy, large scale cultivation of such a versatile product aided in fueling the industrial revolution, and in ending widespread famine across the world throughout the 18th, 19th, and even 20th centuries (counterintuitive perhaps when considering the infamous case of Ireland, but still largely true). As a relatively shelf stable and easy to grow crop, they provided nations like Spain, France, and Russia with the ability to feed large numbers of the population with very little effort, solving years of social and political instability.
The tubers have concrete origins in ancient Andean society, as a plant whose simple ability to survive in such harsh conditions warranted great honor and prestige. The rise of the Incan empire is due in large part to the cultivation of the potato, as it served as a staple crop and supported the development of civilization as we know it. In Peru today, there are still over 4,000 natural varietals of potato available.
With the invasion of Spanish conquistadors to South America, potatoes began to travel around the globe. By the late 1700s, many major European nations were relying on potatoes to nourish their hungry peasant populations, attempting to return high status to the simple spuds. French monarchs flaunted the plants’ nutritional benefits (and attractive flowers), encouraging their subjects to rely not on more expensive bread and wheat, but instead on cheap and easy to grow potatoes. The result was the beginning of a long history of mass production and consumption of crops with identical genetics, better known today as a monoculture.
Of course, in the mid-1800s a cruel lesson was learned about the dangers of planting a single crop with little to no genetic diversity. Crop failure and widespread famine passed through Europe, and particularly Ireland, further fueled by a general indifference and lack of action on the behalf of government entities.
Perhaps even more transformative was the subsequent global introduction of (and obsession with) pesticides. As disease threatened crops en masse with increasing frequency, farmers frantically sought out new solutions for a problem of their own creation. One answer was found in the form of guano, a manure fertilizer native to the Chincha islands in Peru and known to be an excellent natural source of nitrogen.
With the “discovery” of the islands’ nitrogen rich shores came increased global attention on Peru, followed by a standard case of US intervention. The rest is a kind of story we unfortunately know all too well—a combination of market forces, social dynamics, and government subsidies lead to the decline of indigenous potato farming as it had once existed and thrived for centuries.
Suddenly, thousands of heirloom varieties were traded out for a handful of more modern counterparts, many of which were developed in Europe with the simple goal of improving both yields and consistency. The use of pesticides became common practice, forming in turn an entire market for the mass production of such fertilizers. The mid 1900’s also fostered a consumer desire for lower prices and increased convenience, creating a booming industry for cheap and “unskilled” labor. This new gig economy was enforced and emphasized by a collective view of the potato as an extremely ignoble vegetable.
What exists today is a market that is over-saturated by inexpensive and flavorless potatoes, produced with a form of agriculture that is exploitative and unsustainable in the most literal sense of the words. Another 5 or 10 years of wide-spread factory farming will send us into the irreversible apocalyptic spiral that scientists have warned against for years—this is a fact.
In many ways, modern industrial agriculture is our greatest enemy and our final frontier. We have grown accustomed to a never ending surplus of cheap cash crops, incorporating them into our diets in any way possible. Corn, wheat, soy, and potatoes dominate global markets due to the simple fact that they are, well, simple.
To put it bluntly, we take potatoes for granted. We are used to paying low prices and we expect them to continue getting lower. We do not consider the cost of labor, equipment, or transportation that it took to get our sack of Yukon Golds on to the shelves at Whole Foods. Far too often we do not even think about the person who grew and harvested those plants, or the machines and pesticides that replaced them.
In America especially, potatoes have become some of the most under-appreciated produce. Red, white, and yellow are the options, and they differ very slightly from one another. They are available almost anytime and anywhere. We do not spend much mental energy contemplating their preparation, and in turn we do not do them justice.
In many ways, the generic potatoes piled on our supermarket shelves serve as a reminder of all the failures of modern society—or rather, they should. As food has become increasingly commercialized, consumers have grown too comfortable with willful ignorance. Quality is rarely a concern, since convenience and consistency are the priority. As for the social, political, and economic ramifications of exploitative labor practices, the general mentality tends to be one of “out of sight out of mind”, as such is often the way in a capitalist world.
I didn’t want to write about Thanksgiving today, and so I didn’t. This would have been an activity which could only result in an incomprehensible babble of complaints about the American obsession with over-indulgence and an attempted erasure of our violent colonial past. I actively chose not to ramble on for hours about the history which this holiday commemorates, and the dangerous ideas perpetuated by its mere existence and continued celebration.
And so no, this was (and is) most certainly not an essay about Thanksgiving. The imperialist origins and lasting dangers of industrial agriculture are relevant every day—this just so happens to also be a day when many of us will be eating potatoes.
How the Potato Changed the World, Charles C. Mann
El SOS del sector papero por bajos precios para el productor, María Alejandra Medina Cartagena
Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, American Indian Health & Diet Project
The Irish Famine, Jim Donnelly