Would you like fries with that? People around the world enjoy potatoes. They come in all shapes and sizes and are a staple in fast food restaurants, sit down eateries, and fine dining establishments throughout the world. The potato arguably has had the most significant impact on Old World agriculture than any other crop.
There are thousands of varieties of potatoes. All of these varieties are indigenous to the New World, primarily South America. During the sixteenth century, the potato made its way to Europe. At first Europeans embraced it as an aphrodisiac and a novelty item. After its 100-year presence in Europe, it was still viewed as an inferior item. Some Europeans thought consuming a potato would cause leprosy, others considered it mealy and insipid no matter how it was prepared, and still others found it to be fitting for only peasants and laborers.
In actuality, the potato was nutritious. As land in Europe was divided over and over again due to various cultural traditions and laws, plots became smaller and smaller. Land available for cultivation declined and the land that was available was of poor quality. The potato plant could produce high yields in poor soil and on small plots. In other words, the potato could be both a sustenance crop and a surplus crop on a small parcel of land.
Global trade had been perfected in the late-eighteenth century. Ships held more cargo while being lighter and faster. As sugar, cotton, and tobacco became primary crops in the Americas, regions in Europe grew and sustained on just a single crop. The potato rose to prominence in Europe, and farmers with small plots were able to grow enough to live off of while selling their surplus to merchants who would then carry them to the New World’s sugar islands, tobacco farms, and cotton plantations. The potato had come full circle.
The potato of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was very nutritious. The Irish families that lived away from the coast survived almost solely on the potato. It was prepared in a number of ways, and it was not uncommon for an Irish farmer to eat 13 pounds of potatoes a day. People who lived in the coastal areas supplemented their potatoes with fresh seafood.
When a blight struck the potato plants over several years beginning in 1845, it devastated the Irish population. Those that could afford to flee did so. The poor and starving either had to enter into the poorhouse or roam the Island eating grass along the side of the road. Starvation was a long and painful process. A million Irish perished during the Great Famine and over a million emigrated.