The noble tuber
by Allegra Baggio Corradi
Owing to the outbreak of WWI, an unexpected shortage of potato supplies afflicted several European countries. Having been exported to the front, potatoes were no longer available for purchase from the shop or market. A need to learn how to cultivate, cook and preserve potatoes became key to the survival of those were not fighting the war first-hand. Gardens and allotments were among the most prized possessions of citizens wishing to grow independent of market supplies. Guides and texts on potatoes proliferated over a short period of time, circulating the necessary information on the matter in abundance. In particular, the castle strain of pedigree seedling potatoes was chiefly recommended for its vigorous constitution, high table quality, heavy cropping properties and freedom from disease.
Great attention was paid to the tillage of the soil and the specific choice of the varieties to be grown depending on the conditions of the climate. A deeply dug, rich and generous soil was preferred over a shallow and light one. Autumn and winter are indicated as the best moments to plant because of the wholesomeness that the seasons creates for the roots to become wholly engrafted. Also particularly relevant was the most critical disease that affected potatoes at the start of the 20th century, and that is, the Wart Disease or Black Scab. Research started to increase exponentially in order to single out the potato varieties that were least affected by the disease.
Never short on puns, potato guide editors suggested that readers “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the contents of the following pages.
Potatoes were first brought to Europe from the mountainous parts of South America, in the neighbourhood of Quito. There, the tubers were called pa pas. When they arrived in Spain, they started being called battatas. When they arrived in Italy, they were given the same name as truffles, and that is, taratoufli. The case was different for England, where they were brought directly from Virginia by colonists in the latter part of the 16th century. Other than in the kitchen, potatoes were used elsewhere in the household. For instance, starch was used as a hair-powder and in the laundry. The spirit yielded by potatoes was equal in distillation to that of wine and beer.
Puritans condemned the use of the potato because it was not mentioned in the Bible. So harsh was the opposition of Puritans to the cultivation of potatoes that the first account available testifying to the market culture of the tuber dates back to 1807, when a farmer named Puttman from Barking in Essex, grew 300 acres of potatoes and sent to the local market no less than 3,000 tons of washed potatoes.
The potato is a tuberous-rooted perennial, has white, lilac or lavender coloured petals, five stamens, one stigma, and bears globular berries containing from 200 to 300 seeds. The eyes of a potato tuber are really leaf buds and analogous to those formed on the stems of a plant. If it were the desire of the grower to yield flowers and berries in preference to tubers, the formation of too many tubers should be discouraged through the placing of the potatoes in poor ground.
The plan is often practised of spreading the tubers in a layer on the floor of a loft or room. Even if light be admitted, the close contiguity of the tubers promotes premature sprouting. Over time, systems of planting became increasingly specialised. The most popular were the following three: the drill, flat and lazy bed. Every year in the first half of the 19th century, new varieties of potatoes were introduced, which were mostly inedible and only good for exhibition. As early as 1850, the year-round demand for potatoes was already increasing, for “we have now arrived at a period when the taste for all things out of season seems to be the prevailing one.”
Various cooking methods were proposed over the years. It was widely believed in the late 1800s that “few people know how to cook the noble tuber properly. It is seldom in our public restaurants that one can obtain a really good boiled potato, and as for those cooked by the average servant, they are often worse, if anything.” Other than for human beings, potatoes were also widely used to feed confined birds, horses and cattle and to fatten poultry.
A wide range of tools were also invented to facilitate the growth and collect potatoes, among which sorters for small crops, saddle harrows, planters, weighing machines, shovels and hoes.
On a non-agricultural level, potatoes attracted the eye for their monstruous shapes. In The Book of the Potato, T.W. Sanders photographed a wide range of potato monstrosities, which he held as being particularly curious and unique. Among these, the marine animal mimic, the doggie tuber, the cottage loaf tuber, the ape-like tuber, the tuber-in-tuber and the tuber perforated by twitch.