Wednesday, March 4, 2009

John Reader's "Potato"

John Reader is a writer and photojournalist who holds an honorary research fellowship in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. He has travelled all over the world and now resides in Surrey, UK.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, and reported the following:
The Spanish conquistadores had overthrown the Incas in 1532 and sent vast quantities of gold and silver back to Europe. But arguably the most valuable item they discovered was an odd-looking esculent that grew in the high Andes – the potato. Page 99 of Potato - a history of the propitious esculent comes at the beginning of a chapter which tells the story of how insecure Europe's food supply had been before the arrival of the potato:

July was the cruellest month, when the grass stood high in the meadows, demanding to be cut and dried and stacked before a turn in the weather spoiled it. Haymaking was the first great harvest of the year – but to feed livestock during the winter, not haymakers at midsummer. People toiling in the hayfields were hungry, burning up at least 3,000 calories a day at the time of year when their available supplies of energy-packed carbohydrates were lowest. The store of last year’s harvest was nearly finished – if there was any left at all – and crops planted in the spring would not be ready to reap for weeks yet. Thus, summer was not a sunblest romp for the rural majority in sixteenth century Europe – it was ‘the hungry gap,’ when people worked hardest and ate least, and many were starving if last year’s harvest had been poor. Brueghel painted hayfield scenes of bucolic fun. Midsummer madness? Perhaps, though as likely induced by the lightheadedness of starvation as by the excesses of consumption.

The potato is a supremely productive and reliable crop. It will thrive on land and in weather where grain would fail; output per unit of land and labour is four times that of grain; three-quarters of its biomass is edible, compared with one-third of grain; it is easily prepared and - most important of all - highly nutritious.

The potato filled Europe's hungry gap and fuelled a burst of population wherever it became a staple food. In due course, the city-based industrial revolution not only mopped up surplus rural populations but also fed the labouring masses on potatoes. As the renowned historian, William H. McNeill, wrote: 'the potato changed the world's history'. It is not even mentioned on page 99, but the context is clear. Read on …
Read an excerpt from Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent, and learn more about the book at the Yale University Press website.

Check out John Reader's top 10 potato books.

--Marshal Zeringue