Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone famously touts only three of his many triumphs: that he founded the University of Virginia, that he wrote that state’s groundbreaking religious freedom statute, and that he was the author of a little document called the Declaration of Independence. The fact that he was also the third President of the United States apparently did not rate high enough in his estimation to make the cut. It is fairly unsurprising, then, that he also saw fit to leave some other accomplishments of far-reaching historical and cultural import off the list—such as signing off on the Louisiana Purchase, dispatching Lewis and Clark to explore the West, and introducing the french fry to America.
The writer and photojournalist John Reader relates the story of this lesser-known Jeffersonian contribution to American culture in his highly digressive and intermittently fascinating new book Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, which traces the humble spud from its origins in the prehistoric Andes to its current role in driving the growth of the rapidly expanding Chinese economy. Cheap and efficient to produce, extraordinarily nutritious, and a staple of diets around the world, Solanum tuberosum has shaped the course of human history, feeding the rise of great civilizations, fueling the expansion of modern free market economies, and filling the bellies of the factory workers of the industrial revolution.
All the same, this most remarkable of tubers has rarely received attention commensurate with its great historical and cultural significance. When we think of potatoes (if we think of them at all), we do not imagine the grand sweep of human civilization; instead, we summon images of isolated fields in Idaho and impoverished Irish farmers toiling in 19th-century dirt. One can even rise to the esteemed office of Vice President of the United States without so much as knowing how to spell the word “potato”—and having an understanding of its central place in our history and culture is clearly not required.
With Potato: A History of Propitious Esculent, John Reader aims to give the humble spud its due. In accessible and often charming prose, Reader attempts to cover the whole of the potato’s history, while also making a passionate case for its often overlooked historical, economic, and cultural significance. Less a scholar of the potato than a passionate booster, Reader draws far too heavily on the work of past scientists and historians in order to build his arguments, and he has very few ideas of his own to offer. He also frequently indulges in lengthy historical tangents, and altogether fails to weave his book’s numerous divergent threads into a coherent whole.
Although Reader’s tremendous enthusiasm for his subject is appealing, his accounts of the history of potato research often demonstrate an extremely uncritical admiration of notable potato scholars such as Redcliffe N. Salaman and J.G. Hawkes. When describing Hawkes participation in a 1930s South American potato collecting expedition, Reader sometimes employs a breathlessly admiring tone, one that is better suited to a celebrity-worshipping fan than to a professional journalist or historian. Also, Reader cites Salaman’s 1949 book The History and Social Influence of the Potato so frequently, and leans on Salaman’s research so heavily, that it is sometimes difficult to imagine why he felt the need to write his own book on the subject at all.
Reader also fills a large number of pages with lengthy, rambling, and entirely unnecessary accounts of subjects bearing only a tangential (at best) relationship to the potato. For example: when elucidating the origins and domestication of the potato, he includes a needlessly thorough discussion of the history and archaeology of European settlement in the New World, and also sees fit to devote several pages to the topic of mercury mining in the Andes under Spanish rule. Neither topic is entirely irrelevant to the history of the potato, but in both cases, Reader offers far more information than is necessary to understand the matters more immediately at hand.
Reader’s book is, at the very least, quite informative, and contains a wealth of fascinating facts about the potato’s many remarkable qualities. He expounds repeatedly and at some length about the potato as an extraordinarily rich source of nutrients, protein, and carbohydrates—it is, he claims, “the best all-around bundle of nutrition known.” According to Reader, a person who eats nothing but potatoes will ingest sufficient energy and protein to survive—or even to engage in hard physical labor throughout the day.
It is the potato’s nutritive quality, along with its inexpensiveness and ease of production, that has made it a frequent and convenient tool of oppressors. Cheap potatoes, Reader notes, fuel cheap labor. As a result, potatoes have often filled the bellies of the world’s poor without substantially improving their comfort or economic prospects. During the height of Ireland’s potato-growing days in the 19th century, English landlords effectively restricted their Irish tenant farmers to a bare subsistence diet of potatoes, even as they reaped large profits by selling Irish-produced grains, wool, and meat. The factory owners of the industrial revolution also to some extent owed their fortunes to the inexpensive potato, which provided their workers just enough energy and nutrition to fuel them through 16-hour workdays in dangerous conditions.
As engaging as this line of argument may be, it is by no means original to Reader—and while making it he also wanders off into nostalgic reminiscences of his own personal visits to rural Ireland. For all its informativeness, Reader’s book is baggy, disjointed, and only intermittently satisfying. Reader emphasizes that the potato has yet to receive the full attention and complete respect from historians that it deserves—and no doubt someday some other writer will make a far stronger case for it than Reader manages here.