What We Eat: How the Spud Changed the World - #106

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

 BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: On two occasions the potato changed the course of world history. The first time was when it supplied the primary source of energy for the great Inca Empire and the Spanish colonists that conquered them. The second time was when the potato fed an expanding population in Europe, which allowed a few small Northern European nations to dominate the rest of the world—which they did for over 200 years.

BURT WOLF: It looks like the potato was first cultivated in the Andean Mountains of South America about 7,000 years ago. The great centers of pre-Inca culture were high up, some as high as 12,500 feet above sea level and each night the temperature would drop below freezing. Edible crops were in short supply. But the potato was one of the few crops that could be grown at high altitudes. The Andean farmers came to rely on the potato. They also found an ingenious way of preserving them.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Raw potatoes don’t store very well, but by squeezing out their moisture and exposing them to the cold night air, Andean farmers were able to produce freeze-dried potatoes, and they stored them in giant underground vaults where they held their nutrients for many years. Now potatoes are packed with nutrients and, except for calcium and vitamins A and D, they’ll give you enough stuff to live on for quite a few years.

BURT WOLF: The Inca government collected the freeze-dried potatoes as tribute, kept them in warehouses and distributed them to workers who were employed on official projects.

In 1545, Spanish colonists discovered silver in what is now southern Bolivia. Thousands of Incan laborers were forced to work the mines. An inexpensive food was needed to keep them alive—so the Spanish adopted the Inca’s use of the freeze-dried potato.  The potato fed the workers who, in turn, fed the world’s appetite for precious metal.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The silver that came out of the South American mines flooded the world. In Europe, it allowed Philip II of Spain to pay for his imperial fleets and his imperial armies that sailed on them. The windfall lasted for about a hundred years; and then the ore ran out and so did much of Spain’s power.  A second effect of all of that silver floating around was massive inflation. Without an Alan Greenspan around to control the situation, prices began to rise and both the moral and economic standings of the countries began to change.  People who were fabulously wealthy became incredibly poor, and people who were incredibly poor became fabulously wealthy.

BURT WOLF: But in the end, it wasn’t the silver that would prove most valuable to Europeans—it was the potato. At first, Spanish settlers looked down on the potato and relied on corn. The potato, however, did catch on with sailors, who recognized that eating potatoes prevented scurvy. The first potatoes to reach Europe traveled on Spanish ships returning from South America.

Spain introduced the potato to the rest of Europe. For most of the 16th century, parts of Northern Italy and the Netherlands were under Spanish rule.

The route used by Spanish troops to connect these two imperial provinces became known as the “Spanish Road.” Potatoes took root in peasant gardens all along its path.

In those days armies were expected to supply themselves with food from the countryside in which they were operating. Stores of grain piled up in barns were easy pickings. Wherever the local population depended on stored grain for their survival, starvation was the usual and expected result of any major military campaign.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the reasons that potatoes were so popular with peasants along the “Spanish Road,” was that they realized that the potato growing underground could help protect them from the ruthless requisitioning of the soldiers moving above-ground. During the 16th and 17th centuries soldiers loved pillaging— I mean, it was in keeping with their sense of who they were—it had style.  But digging potatoes out of the ground with a shovel—I mean, after all, that’s embarrassing; there’s the image of the uniform that has to be upheld.

BARBARA WHEATON  ON CAMERA: The story of potatoes arriving in Europe is a very interesting one.  They were taken up early in Germany.  And in the British Isles, not just in Ireland.  The French were very loathe to try them.  It didn't look like anything they were used to eating.  And, in the late eight, seventeen hundreds, when people were trying to get the French away from their fixation on bread as the staff of life, the French scientist and agronomist, Parmentier, tried to substitute potato starch for wheat flour in bread, and it was a complete failure. He got around this eventually, by planting a great field of potatoes, setting armed guards around it, and then, when the potatoes were ready for harvest, he removed the guards, and of course, the peasants had all been watching this thing, which was obviously so valuable.  And they all raced in and stole the potatoes and took them home and planted them.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In spite of its slow start, the potato eventually got out of the kitchen gardens and into the open fields. And as it reached those open fields, it once again changed the course of world history.  Only this time it needed a little help from the governments.  Somewhere around 1750, the ruling powers in Europe teamed up with the landowners and began pressuring the peasants to plant potatoes. They realized that, in spite of constant warfare and re-occuring famine, the potato would keep the peasants alive. And, quite frankly, what is the point of being a King if you don't have peasants?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At least a hundred years before Columbus wandered into the Caribbean, Basque fishermen were harvesting cod just off the coast of Canada. On the way home, they would usually stop on the west coast of Ireland to dry their catch. As soon as the potato was introduced to Spain, the Basque fishermen began to put it aboard their ships.  Sometime in the late 1500s, or early 1600s, they introduced it to the west coast of Ireland. During the middle of the 1600’s, when the Irish were fighting the English and were forced back to the west coast of Ireland, they learned to live on the potato.

DAVID DICKSON ON CAMERA: The potato really thrived in the very maritime ecology of Ireland.  It needed seaweed or it needed the animal dung.  It fitted into a pastoral society, a society that had previously been very much dependent on things like butter, milk for the diet, at least in ... in winter time.  This is a society that has always boiled its food more than baked its food, and the potato slipped into that almost seamlessly in the 1600s.  And I think this early success of the potato was because it didn't require a revolution either in cultivation methods or certainly in cooking habits.  In other words, the pot inside which the potato was boiled had been there before the potato.

BURT WOLF: In 1650, the English, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, sent troops to Ireland to put down a rebellion. Storehouses, mills, and fields were burned. It was in this setting that the value of the potato stood out. Potatoes grew underground, in small wet plots that were difficult to burn. They stored safely and in concealed places within a farmer’s cottage. They didn’t need to be milled or processed. Planting didn’t even require a plough—a family could plant an adequate crop using nothing more than a spade.  The Irish were eventually defeated, but they weren’t starved out. They were, however, forced off their land, which was given to Cromwell’s veterans.  The new English landlords concentrated on raising beef cattle and growing grain for export to Europe, and they used cheap Irish labor to get it done.        

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: As the 17th century wore on, speculators, who were only interested in making a buck, ended up buying almost all of the land that had previously belonged to  Cromwell’s veterans. Raising cattle had always been a safety net for Irish farmers; but the speculators realized that the fastest way for them to make a buck was to raise cattle.  They put an end to this kind of general farming and went for the beef. They’d raise it, ship it to Cork or Dublin for slaughter and then for export. By the beginning of the 18th century, Ireland was Europe’s largest exporter of beef.

BURT WOLF: The underpaid Irish labor force learned to make do on a diet of potatoes and milk. A single acre of potatoes and a single cow could feed an entire Irish family. And given the small amount of land still available for rent, it wasn’t uncommon for an Irish family to find itself with only a single acre. And often that acre was owned by an English landlord.

DAVID DICKSON ON CAMERA: The land owners and the land holders, the cattle owners, did relatively well and indeed Ireland becomes a very successful food-producing economy for Britain in particular.  And in which it was dependent on a vast army of cheap labor.  That cheap labor lived on the potato, but it did an awful lot of the work, producing the food surpluses, pastoral, cereal food surpluses that fed its industrial neighbor. Perhaps upwards of half the population by the 1830s, 1840s, were agricultural laborers dependent on insecure employment and on a potato which turned out to be viciously insecure. But it is important to know that up until '45, up until the Great Hunger, the potato was probably more reliable year on year than other types of foodstuffs like oats, rye or wheat.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the first half of the 19th century, tension between the English and the Irish continued to grow. The English passed a series of trade laws and tariffs that favored English industry and agriculture over the Irish and Irish wages continued to drop even further. Trapped by both economics and politics, the Irish began living exclusively on potatoes.  And when the potato crop failed in 1845, a famine followed that was truly disastrous.

DAVID DICKSON ON CAMERA: The Great Hunger or the Great Famine is the largest event in modern Irish history, certainly up to the twentieth century, in that one eighth of the population, inside of six years, died.  We have an excess mortality of about a million or a little over a million, and more than 1 million of Ireland's 8 emigrate between the beginnings of that famine and the early 1850s. An extraordinary artist-cum-reporter, who was working in London and working for the Illustrated London News, produced a series of quite extraordinary images in 1846 and '47.  And really he was a kind of CNN of the Irish Great Hunger because his images were coming through very quickly.  They're quite small, but they bear very close examination and there is extraordinary pathos in some of those faces. By the third or the fourth year of the famine, there’s hardly a social group in Ireland, even among the very wealthiest, who weren't directly affected, partly because the diseases that associated with the famine did not recognize class barriers.  But I think for the very poor, who depended entirely on the potato, the crisis was very real by the end of year one; in other words, by the fall of 1846.

BURT WOLF: The battle against potato blight is still going on and Irish potato farmer, Jerry Flynn, is in the trenches.

JERRY FLYNN ON CAMERA: In the 1840s and 50s, if this was a field back then, there would be nothing left, it would be totally gone.

And this is what the people were digging back in the Famine.  They had no sprays to combat the blight, and this was what they found when they dug up.  There.  And that’s…that’s what blight—actually the spores aren’t there now—that’s what blight will do to a perfectly good crop of potatoes.  In two days.

Today’s blight is black leg. And we have no problem finding black leg in this field, because 60% of this crop is…is full of black leg.  These potatoes might look good, but because of the infection—there’s one of the potatoes there at you  infected with black leg—that will run through the plant. When that damp part hits off another potato, that infected area would hit off a perfectly good…that’s not infected yet…perfectly good potato.  Once that hits off that, it transfers the bacteria from that onto that.

There’s no chemicals, there’s no cure, there’s no seed treatment. There’s absolutely nothing we can do about black leg.   Only sunshine.  It’s like a cancer.  Everybody has it, but in a wet year, it comes out.

We’re still fighting this battle against blight.  And we’re still losing. 


BURT WOLF: English tariffs of the 1840s prevented the emergency importation of substitute grains. Relief efforts eventually got underway, but they were too little, and too late. For many, there was no choice but to emigrate. By 1850 over a million people had left Ireland, with most immigrating to the United States. 

One of the distinguishing aspects of the immigration of the Irish to America is that there were almost the same number of men as women and that allowed the immediate formation of families. The Irish American community developed a strong identity from the moment they arrived in America.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: Now, the Irish, of course, have been coming for… since the Colonial period. But their biggest wave was certainly in the 19th century, and their contribution, one of their biggest contributions, was that they arrived in such huge numbers, and really shocked America—forced America to really think about what it meant to be an American, and kind of expanded the definition. America was not particularly pleased with the arrival of the Irish and gradually, over time—it took a couple of generations—accepted them as Americans.

And you could look at something like the St. Patrick's Day Parade. It's held all across the country now. Every year on March 17th. It's a celebration of Irish identity. But it's been copied and replicated by every immigrant group since.

Other contributions by the Irish, probably the most evident one, is in the role that they played in building the American economy as laborers. They came with very few skills, with almost no money for the most part, but they did arrive with the need to work and the willingness to work…

…and if you look across America, the great infrastructure that was built, that made America the greatest economy in the world by the early 20th century—the railroads, the canals, the great projects like the Brooklyn Bridge—all were built overwhelmingly with Irish labor. Many other groups too, but Irish really were the key contributors to that development.


BARBARA WHEATON ON CAMERA: The potato doesn't make it into the upper class until after the French Revolution in the early 1800s.  After they have fled France, and their cooks have fled France, because people like them were having their heads cut off, which is something nobody much cares for.  And, they fled to parts of Europe where potatoes were already the ordinary fare for every class of society.  Switzerland, and parts of Germany, and the low countries, and the British Isles.  And so when everybody returned, the upper class knew how to eat potatoes, and were used to them, and the chefs had learned how to cook them. One little clue that I have found is that the great chef, Carème, has a recipe in his cookbook, which he publishes in Paris, I think in 1815, for what he calls, in his beautiful English, “mesha potatas,” which I take to be mashed potatoes.  You know, so it had everybody's blessing.  And then it was all right, even for the middle class to eat, because the upper class was eating them.

BURT WOLF: During the 1800’s street vendors in Paris started offering slices of fried potato. They were shaped like a quarter moon and called New Bridge Potatoes after one of the bridges that crossed the River Seine.

By 1870, they had made their way across the channel to England, where they were put together with fried fish to create England’s national fast food.  At about the same time, they probably came over to the United States. What Americans call French fried potatoes are known as chips in England and what we call chips in America are called crisps in England, which of course makes perfect sense when you remember that George Bernard Shaw pointed out that the Americans and the English are two peoples “divided by a common language.”


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But the most important worldwide impact of the potato during the last 250 years is the way it allowed a small number of northern European countries to build a military, political and industrial base which allowed them to dominate the planet.

BURT WOLF: Take a look at a large scale potato operation and you can see what was happening. Potatoes yield two to four times as much nourishment per acre as grain.

As potatoes spread through Europe, a feedback process was set in motion: more potatoes produced more food, more food produced more people, more people produced more potatoes. The population of northern Europe grew as fast as the potato plants. In fact, the rate of population growth in northern Europe far outstripped what was taking place in other parts of the world.

All across Europe, the potato became the staple food of the poor—and the new working classes. It contributed to a population increase that was big enough to provide Europe not only with extra farm laborers, but with the workforce it needed for its transformation into an industrial society.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The expanding European population also filled the ranks of the imperial armies and navies, and their successes allowed Europeans to emigrate all over the world. The potato also fed the Russians and the Germans and, without the potato, it is highly unlikely that either of those countries would have become the industrial and military powers that they eventually became.


BURT WOLF: Fries, however, did not become very popular with Americans until the end of the First World War when American troops returned from the French front with a love of French fries. Americans eat most of their potatoes in the form of the French fry. Each year, Americans consume over thirty pounds of French fries per person. 

They became even more popular during the 1930s when people started driving around the country in their own automobiles. Roadside restaurants began to serve fries because they were easily eaten in a car.

At the end of the Second World War there was a fantastic growth in the use of frozen foods, and the French fried potato became a major item in the new frozen food cases that were being introduced in supermarkets.

They also became the most popular food item in the restaurant business—for decades they have been the most profitable offering in fast food.

The extraordinary healthful and nutritional value of the potato has made it a staple of the American and European diets for hundreds of years. In one form or another, potatoes have become part of virtually everyone’s diet.

This lesson has not been lost on the developing world. Today, the potato is catching on in Africa and Asia, where nations struggling to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry people have been turning to the potato. In South Asia and in some parts of Africa, potato consumption has replaced rice and millet. These days, Rwandans eat more potatoes than the Irish.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So there you have it—the story of the potato.  It fed the great Inca Empire and the Spanish who conquered it.  In Ireland, it tried to keep a starving population alive.  In northern Europe, it fed an expanding population, which allowed a handful of countries to dominate the world for 200 years.  It became a staple in Asia and Africa and the most profitable item on American restaurant menus.  For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.