Historical Notes: The `lazy root' that everyone laughs at

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The Independent Culture
WHENEVER PEOPLE hear that I've written a book on the potato, they smile. At first, they have trouble imagining the potato as having influenced much of anything, let alone Western social history.

A month ago, I met that scepticism again. I was flying home on a many- legged journey to Seattle from Belgium. As I shuffled toward the customs desk in Detroit, a roving inspector halted me. He read my declaration, which affirmed that I was a writer who had gone abroad to do historical research.

"Published anything I might have heard of?" People often ask me this,but his tone had a particular edge.

"Yes." I explained about my potato book, trying hard, in my fatigue,to make sense.

He grinned. I expected him to reply, "And what were you doing in Brussels, digging up the dirt on sprouts?"

But he said, "I'm not laughing at you. It just seems funny." He paused. "You mean how the potato kept people alive during the Great Depression?"

I guessed he had a family story to tell me. "My book goes up to 1914. But you're right, I could have written about the 1930s."

"The potato, huh?" he remarked thoughtfully and penned his approval on my declaration. "Have a safe trip."

"Thanks." I picked up my bags and toddled off.

Later, my wife supposed that the inspector questioned me the way he did to see whether I could hold a coherent conversation. If I could, that would suggest I was not on drugs. Perhaps so, but I still think he was intrigued, despite himself. I wonder whether his family two generations back owed their survival to the vegetable that everyone laughs at.

Why they laugh is actually a profound question. Granted, the rough-skinned, lumpy vegetable will never win a beauty contest, and phrases such as "couch potato" and "potato head" add zest to the language. Nevertheless, the derision is a feeble holdover from days when the potato was called dirty, cheap, and lower-class. That reputation tarred the people who ate the potato, especially if they were too poor to afford other food. Such was the tuber's character in England, where it arrived around 1590.

Suspicion resulted partly from backward botany, because, as a member of the nightshade family, the potato was thought to be a poison or a narcotic. But tobacco, a truly noxious nightshade, was accepted because smoking and taking snuff were expensive, leisure pastimes.

The potato only began making headway during the industrial and agricultural revolutions, and then despite fierce opposition. William Cobbett thundered that he would rather see English labourers hanged, "and be hanged along with them", than see them eat the "lazy root", which he thought would keep them poor. Thomas Malthus, though he praised the potato, wrote that its cheapness led to runaway population growth, notably in Ireland.

Like Cobbett, Victorian critics accused the tuber of causing idleness, that most terrible sin. And medical experts never tired of preaching that idleness led to moral decay, in turn a breeding ground for cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis. When the potato failed in the mid-1840s and famine struck, many saw the hand of Providence. They believed that the poor, especially the Irish, would be better off without their staple, even at that terrible price.

Today, we no longer worry about the potato as a nightshade, and we also know how cholera spreads. But what we laugh at was, not too long ago, a matter of life and death.

Larry Zuckerman is the author of `The Potato: how a vegetable changed history', (Macmillan, pounds 10)