A Brief History of That Most Noble Tuber, the Potato
Rebecca Earle Brings a Little Humanity to a Humble Vegetable
Those times when we grew gold, pure gold …
All 4,500 named varieties of potatoes trace their ancestry to the Americas. Wild potatoes grow along the American cordillera, the mountains that run from the Andes to Alaska. People living on its slopes have been eating potatoes for time out of mind. Stone tools and preserved potato peels show that wild potatoes were being prepared for food in southern Utah and south-central Chile nearly 13,000 years ago; similar evidence dates their domestication from at least 7800 BCE on the northern coast of Peru. They formed an important part of the diet of many of the cultures inhabiting the 9000 kilometers between Utah and Chile.
Together with foods such as quinoa and maize, they provided a robust, starchy backbone to cuisines also enriched with chile peppers, beans and other vegetables. Each variety can be propagated from a “mother potato.” She sounds like an ancient deity but in botany the term refers to the mundane tuber or seed potato that provides the genetic material from which additional plants are cultivated.
One difficulty with potatoes is that they are difficult to store. Anyone who has ever lost track of a bag of potatoes knows this. They have an unfortunate tendency to send forth a tangle of roots, and, worse, rot into a foul-smelling puddle. Andean peoples solved this problem by freeze-drying. Exposing potatoes to the intense cold of the high mountains transforms them into little fists of stone, immune to decay. The technique also neutralizes the poisonous glycoalkaloids present in some of the bitter varieties, allowing these to be eaten safely. If the potato-rocks are trampled underfoot like petrified grapes, it is possible to reduce them to a dry powder that lasts for years. This dried substance, chuño, captivated Spaniards when they first encountered it in the 16th century, and they invariably described in some detail how it is made. Europeans were however slow in adopting it themselves; it was left to industrial manufacturers in the 20th century to bring us Smash and other commercially produced instant mashed potatoes.
Because potatoes were an essential part of the daily diet in the Andean world, their cultivation was a matter of importance. Various rituals helped ensure an abundant harvest. One account from 16th-century Peru describes the festivities that marked the inauguration of the planting season in the mountain village of Lampa. Local dignitaries seated themselves on carpets to watch the proceedings. A procession of richly attired attendants accompanied the seed potatoes, which were carried by six men making music on drums. Events culminated with the sacrifice of a particularly beautiful llama, whose blood was immediately sprinkled on the potatoes. Comparable practices (not necessarily involving llama blood) persist to the present day. Spanish priests objected strongly to these ceremonies but were often powerless to prevent them.
The Andean writer Felipe de Guaman Poma de Ayala described the agricultural potato cycle in an extraordinary manuscript that he composed in the early 17th century, after the arrival of Europeans. The son of indigenous nobility, Guaman Poma was born shortly after the Spanish conquest of his homeland. Late in his life he was moved to recount the history that he had to some extent witnessed first-hand.
Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle, as he titled the 1,000-page text, offered a universal history of the world, from Adam and Eve, through the Inca monarchs, to the dismal period of Spanish rule, whose multiple evils Guaman Poma documented in detail. It also described the ritual calendars of both Christian and Incaic religions, and the agricultural tasks carried out each month. The chronicle is illustrated lavishly with Guaman Poma’s idiosyncratic and immensely appealing line drawings. Several show the labor required to cultivate the essential potato. Digging sticks in hand, a man and woman weed the field in the picture for June, while a second woman ports a heavy sack away for storage. Other drawings depict men and women at work sowing seed potatoes and tending the abundant plants.No such imperial oversight was bestowed on potatoes.
Unlike maize, which held a high status within the Inca state, potatoes were considered a lowly food, necessary but banal. Even in the potato’s omphalos they were viewed with some disdain. Along the Andes, maize was used to brew the all-important chicha or aqha, the corn beer that accompanied virtually every important political encounter. Potatoes played no comparable role in high diplomacy; for Andeans as for us, they were ordinary things. Guamon Poma contrasted the robust stature of maize eaters with puffy, effete villagers forced to subsist on dried chuño.
For these reasons, potatoes did not enjoy the intense state ritual lavished on the maize crop. The Inca himself participated every year in a symbolic maize-planting ceremony, to the accompaniment of music and song. Similar state-level festivities marked the maize harvest, and the intervening period was overseen by a team of priests who fasted throughout the planting season and kept track of the crop’s progress. In the sacred fields around the Inca capital, Cuzco, small gold replica cornstalks were interspersed among the growing maize, to “encourage” it. No such imperial oversight was bestowed on potatoes. Cultivated a village level, they were traded and consumed within more local orbits, their growth fostered by smaller rituals such as the one that took place centuries ago in Lampa, where the sprinkling of llama blood on seed potatoes distressed the Catholic cleric.
All potatoes nonetheless benefitted from the attention of the Potato Mother, Axomama, daughter of the earth goddess Pachamama, and sister to Saramama, the Maize Mother. As these names suggest, Andean potato language and cosmology are rich in feminine reproductive power. Plant breeders, perhaps unwittingly, replicate this vocabulary when they speak of the mother tubers from which all potato plants derive. Watching over the potato fields in the Andes—which scientists suggestively call the tuber’s “cradle area”—Axomama cares for her tuberous offspring. Together with her sisters and their all-powerful mother, Axomama controls the earth’s fertility, overseeing the growth of potatoes and other things necessary for sustenance. Household shrines to Pachamama and her fertile daughters balanced state-level neglect of potatoes. The veneration of this feminine dynasty long pre-dated the official rituals of the Inca empire, and persists to the present.
For Andean farmers, human history and human bodies were entangled with these plants and the broader universe. Beautiful or unusual potatoes were themselves miniature Potato Mothers, and all encapsulated the generative powers of the female body. “Corn and clay, potatoes and gold were linked together as emblems of female powers of creation,” writes the historian Irene Silverblatt. Just as Abosch’s Potato 345 is at once a solid, earthly potato, an organic, living planet, and perhaps a human body, so a Potato Mother is the fecund mother plant used to breed up new generations of potatoes, and an ancient being in command of the earth’s powerful generative strength. Today Andean potato farmers coddle the skittish, feminine soil, hoping she’ll feel sweet enough to favor them with a good harvest. In the happier days before colonialism, they recall, “we grew gold, pure gold”: potatoes as golden nuggets, living stones.
The Moche, who lived along the northern coast of Peru in the first millennium CE, formed beautiful ceramic containers in the shape of potatoes. Moche potters often created realistic replicas of ordinary foodstuffs such as potatoes, or squash or maize. At the same time as they represented the elements of the mundane kitchen world these clay recreations alluded to the overarching spiritual universe that made all existence possible. In one vessel, four potatoes point to four corners of the universe.They remind us that the story connecting humans to potatoes is a tale of violence as well as sustenance.
Alongside such lovely earthenware vegetables Moche potters crafted disturbing vessels that meld human faces disfigured by cuts and slashes, missing lips and noses, with the form of a potato. A strange, bulbous figure looks back at us from one pot, its body formed from lumpy tubers. Three eyes stare out from its belly. Lacking lips, it can only grimace with its unnaturally wide mouth.
Redcliffe Salaman, the author of a monumental history of the potato first published in 1949, developed the theory that these pots depict the unfortunate victims of Andean harvest rituals. Some people, he surmised, were selected to represent the potato harvest. The more “eyes” a potato develops, the more shoots it sends out, which means it will produce more prolifically. Perhaps, in order to ensure a bountiful crop, these symbolic potato-people had additional eyes incised into their own bodies, or their lips excised to widen their mouths into another huge eye. Living Mr. Potato Heads, their faces became potatoes—people and potatoes superimposed to reveal their unexpected commonalities. Anthropologists have questioned this interpretation, but that’s what I think of when viewing these strange pots. They remind us that the story connecting humans to potatoes is a tale of violence as well as sustenance.
The Great Hunger
“And where potato diggers are you still smell the running sore.”
In Ireland the connections between potatoes, people, sustenance and suffering run deep. The Great Famine of 1845 to 1848, which resulted in the death or emigration of a fifth of the population, marked Irish history. Potatoes arrived in Ireland in the sixteenth century, probably from Spain, and over the next centuries came to play an ever more important role in the diet of the Irish poor. The potato’s superlative power to convert earth and light into calories made it possible for entire families to live on the minute patches of land onto which the rural Irish were squeezed as commercial wheat, dairy and meat production expanded after the English colonized Ireland in the sixteenth century.
By the 1840s some 40 percent of the population subsisted almost entirely on potatoes, or potatoes with a bit of buttermilk if they possessed enough land to pasture a milch cow. Poor men in rural Ireland ate between three and five kilos of potatoes a day and little else. The varieties grown were as limited as this diet. While a single valley in the Andes might contain over a hundred different types of cultivated potato, most of the potatoes grown in 19th-century Ireland were a yellow-fleshed variety known as Irish Lumper. Monocultures are extremely vulnerable to disease, since a single pathogen can devastate the entire harvest. When Ireland’s potato crop failed in 1845, and again in 1846 and 1848, over a million people died.
The Famine was triggered by an outbreak of late blight (phytophthera infestans), a micro-organism probably originating in the Americas, but the magnitude of the calamity was greatly increased by the response of the British government, which viewed the crisis as a welcome opportunity to reshape Irish society. In the opinion of officials such as Charles Trevelyan, chief administrator at the Treasury in London, Ireland’s entire economic structure was an affront to modern capitalist practice.
Because it was possible (just) to live off them, potatoes allowed rural Irish families to evade the discipline of wage labor by remaining self-sufficient. The collapse of the potato economy would, he hoped, propel Irish smallholders off their tiny plots of land and into the ranks of the proletariat. This, Trevelyan believed, would an enormous improvement, well worth the “transient evil” of famine. It would also sweep away the inefficient and listless class of Irish landlords, whom the British held responsible for the catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The last thing the British government should do, from his perspective, was prop up this archaic system with aid to the stricken Irish. For liberals such as Trevelyan, the potato was an obstacle to modernity, a roadblock on the march towards economic rationality. It was the enemy of the state. “What hope is there for a nation which lives on potatoes?” he exclaimed in disgust.Peeling potatoes in silence with his mother was, he declared in a 1987 sonnet, the closest bond they ever shared, a cold comfort to recall after her death.
Trevelyan’s view that the potato was responsible for the immiseration of the Irish peasant was widely shared. It was this history, more than anything, that prompted the potato historian Redcliffe Salaman to declare the potato “the most perfect instrument for the maintenance of poverty and degradation.” Potatoes, fulminated the 19th-century social agitator William Cobbett, were a damnable crop because they kept the Irish alive to be exploited by landlords. They were the root “of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery.” They reduced men to the state of animals, or, actually, potatoes. In Cobbett’s opinion, Irish peasants had become virtually indistinguishable from the potatoes they lived off. The miserable, dirty hovels in which the Irish sheltered differed little from underground potato beds. The lumpen Irish peasant and the Lumper potato were virtually one and the same. “Commonalities between humans and potatoes” indeed.
But in Ireland the potato is not a signifier only of death, and the cruel mercies of Trevelyan’s brave new world of waged labor. It is also a symbol of nourishment, of sustenance, of the bonds that link families together, of Axomama and her sustaining offspring. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney captured both aspects of the potato. Born in 1939, Heaney grew up on a small farm in Northern Ireland. The rhythms of rural life shaped his poetry, as did Ireland’s folkways and its troubled history. Heaney alluded to all of these influences in the lecture delivered in 1995 when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Heaney’s much-lauded poetry captures the potato’s complex resonance in Ireland. In his poems, potatoes signal his own past, connecting him to his parents and grandparents. Preparing potatoes with his mother, watching his father dig a potato bed, become re-enactments of his own lineage, his own rootedness in Irish history, as well as reminders of his sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with that past. Peeling potatoes in silence with his mother was, he declared in a 1987 sonnet, the closest bond they ever shared, a cold comfort to recall after her death. Potatoes in Heaney’s poetry transmit the steady rhythm of the everyday. A basket of new potatoes counterbalances the gashes carved in Irish society by political violence. In “After a Killing,” the sight of a young girl shopping for vegetables hints that, like it or not, life will continue despite the omnipresence of death. Equally powerfully, potatoes bespeak the painful history of the Famine.
“At a Potato Digging” (1966) evokes the Famine, and also the potato’s inescapable centrality to life itself. The poem is shaped by a constant elision between people and potatoes. It begins with a description of a modern harvest. Despite the century that has passed since Black ’45, the first year of the Famine, its shadow looms over the exhausted workers, who in stooping down to gather in the potatoes, bow in homage to the dark earth, the “black Mother” of potatoes and of life and death:
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
No nourishing Axomama this hard deity.
The second stanza describes the living, pulsing potatoes themselves. The newly harvested potatoes are slippery, damp newborns nurtured by their black Earth Mother, who
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
Like subterranean rabbits the fecund potatoes mature in a “hutch of clay” under the earth. Just as the Moche perhaps incised potato eyes into living human faces, Heaney makes the potatoes into human heads. They are “live skulls, blind eyed,” sightless but animate. After the harvest they lie stored in long clay pits that are all too resonate of human graves. Potatoes and people alike are born from the dark earth and return to it.While Heaney cursed the potato as a bitch mother, and Andean potato farmers honored the potato mother, Neruda hailed the potato as a father.
The tomb-like storage pits presage the Famine, when “stinking potatoes fouled the land.” The new potatoes, once “sound as stone,” have rotted in their clay burial place. Reversing the image of the potato as a living skull, the starving Irish become themselves “live skulls, blind eyed.” “Wild higgledy skeletons,” they are pecked to death by hunger as the potatoes lie dead in the “bitch earth” who has refused to nourish her people. The final stanza returns to the present, as the resting harvesters, “dead-beat” but at least alive, spill “libations of cold tea, scatter crusts” on the black and faithless earth, still propitiating their fickle mother with these offerings. The poem unites past and present, people and potatoes, all dependent on the fertile but unreliable body of the earth herself. Heaney’s black earth Mother, like Axomama, links the potato to the mysterious reproductive powers of women’s bodies, and indeed to all human bodies.
Heaney’s poetry speaks to the commonalities between people and potatoes noted by Kevin Abosch. It seems fitting that Irish poet and Irish potato have both been the objects of Abosch’s photography. Abosch’s portrait of Heaney was made in the same year as his photograph of Potato 345. Each appears silhouetted against a starless black sky, complete and undeniable in their individuality.
The resonance between families, history and the mundane world of the potato is evoked with equal power in the work of another poet whom Heaney admired: the Chilean Pablo Neruda. Heaney shared with Neruda a commitment to poetry that explored the everyday, functional objects that populate our lives. Like Heaney, Neruda valued “the used surfaces of things, the wear that hands give to things.” His poems consistently honored both worn surfaces and the nameless workers whose lives he sought to resurrect.
Neruda’s childhood was precarious; his father barely eked out a living as a railwayman and his son’s ambitions to write poetry enraged him. A poet Neruda nonetheless became, winning fame and admiration first for his unabashed celebration of sexual desire in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, and later for his ability to condense into poetry an entire universe of natural beauty, human struggle, the dignity of labour, and the transcendence of love. Like Heaney, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.
In the 1950s Neruda began work on a series of poems that he called “elementary odes.” Neruda had recently joined the Chilean Communist Party, formalizing a long-standing inclination. In keeping with his newly affirmed political convictions, he began experimenting with less grandiose forms of poetry, which would reflect the material reality of life, rather than exploring metaphysics and the aesthetic avant garde. The elementary odes were the result. Many of them focus specifically on the vigor and authenticity of working-class culture. As one critic put it, they elevate “the commonplace and the everyday to the dignity of poetic treatment.” They were written in the midst of personal turmoil; Neruda’s wife had recently learned of his affair with Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean singer who had been hired to care for him when he fell ill during a stay in Mexico. The odes are nonetheless mostly joyful in tone, celebrating the mundane pleasures of everyday life. Food is a recurrent theme; Neruda wrote odes to onions, tomatoes, olive oil (“the celestial key to mayonnaise”), and bread, as well as potatoes. All are praised as simple, honest foods eaten by ordinary people.
While Heaney cursed the potato as a bitch mother, and Andean potato farmers honored the potato mother, Neruda hailed the potato as a father. “Ode to the Potato” opens with a declaration of the poet’s lineage: he is the native son of the Chilean potato. Playing off the similarity of the South American terms for potato (papa) and father (papá), Neruda insists on calling the potato papa rather than patata, as it is known in Spain. “Potato, I call you ‘potato-father’ and not patata,” he proclaimed. The ode sets out explicitly the shared heritage that links Neruda to the honest, New World potato. Addressing the potato, the poet explains that “you were not born a pure Spaniard, you are dark like our skin. We are Americans, potato-father, we are Indians.” Neruda and the potato are members of the same South American family. Later stanzas explain how their common mother carefully planted her potatoes in a soft, moist nest in the earth, where they sheltered, little treasures, the true wealth of the Indies. When hordes of acquisitive conquistadors ravaged the land, they found not golden goblets, but potatoes, a different sort of bounty.
Praising the potato as the “enemy of hunger,” honored by all nations, Neruda’s ode celebrates its quiet modesty. Our potato-father is content to rest honorably in the earth, anticipating no great fanfare. “You are not expecting my song, because you are deaf and blind, and buried,” Neruda admitted, before musing whether the hot oil of a frying pan might provoke the potato to break its silence. Potatoes for Neruda, as for Heaney, are our close relatives, and their suffering is our suffering.
Ill with prostate cancer, Neruda died in 1973, twelve days after the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. It is probable that he was murdered on the orders of the new regime, which despised his political views and his poetry. Shortly afterwards Neruda’s friend, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, composed an “Epistle to Neruda” to honor his passing. It concludes:
But today I see Neruda—
he’s always right in the centre
and, not faltering,
he carries his poetry to the people
as simply and calmly
as a loaf of bread.
Or a potato, Yevtushenko might have written.
From Object Lessons: Potato. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Rebecca Earle.