BusinessPotatoes and Faith | Spud Smart Exclusive 2012

Potatoes and Faith | Spud Smart Exclusive 2012

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potatoes_faith_exclusive2012

Potatoes and Faith

Throughout their long history potatoes have been both worshiped and reviled.

The potato was first domesticated several thousand years ago in the area around Lake Titicaca at the border of modern-day Bolivia and Peru, in the Andes mountain range of South America. It was a major food source for various civilizations that preceded and included the Inca Empire. Potatoes were so important to the survival of these early people that they became part of the culture. Ancient tapestries and pottery demonstrate the influence that the potato had on their lives.

The Inca potato god depicted in Figure 1 is holding two stylized potato plants. The one in his/her left hand appears to be healthy, while the plant in his/her right hand probably depicts a diseased plant. It is clear that this god holds in the balance the life of the people depending upon the potato plant. The ceremonial pot shown in Figure 2, dating back to approximately 200 A.D., depicts Axomama, the female goddess of the potato.

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The Inca potato god holds two stylized potato plants, left, and a ceremonial pot depicting Axomama, the Inca potato goddess, right. Sources: International Potato Center and Das Kartoffelmuseum, Munich, Germany.

Before refrigeration and long-distance transportation, Andean natives developed chuño, a freeze-dried product that allowed potatoes to be consumed long after harvest and in seasons when yields were poor. Archeologists have discovered that ancient Andean people often buried bowls filled with chuño in their tombs along with the bodies of the departed.

Another interesting feature of the Incan religion was the outpouring of blood in association with potatoes. This could involve pouring the blood of a llama over the seed potatoes before planting. Potatoes with blood red flesh were apparently also used in fertility ceremonies.

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Potatoes with red flesh were sometimes
used in religious ceremonies.

An “evil root”?
The Carmelite monks played a major role in the early dissemination of the potato in Europe. It was in the garden of a Carmelite monastery in Sevilla, Spain where we have the first record (1573) of the potato being grown and consumed in the local hospital on the continent. From here the potato probably travelled to a sister Carmelite monastery garden in Genoa, Italy. The same monastic order may have played a major role in introducing the potato into Ireland.

[Some] considered the potato guilty of being an ‘evil root.’

In contrast to the Indians of the Andes, who worshipped the potato, the Europeans initially despised the crop. Some folks objected to eating it because it is not mentioned in the Bible, and therefore could not be a food designed for man by God! For a long time the potato was suspected of causing leprosy. When leprosy disappeared from Western Europe the potato became the scapegoat for the cause of “scrofula” (tuberculosis). Others considered the potato guilty of being an “evil root,” probably because of its infamous relatives such as the deadly nightshade and the “terrible weed called tobacco.”

Finally the pendulum swung the other way and the potato became known as a cure for warts, burns, frostbite, sprains, broken bones, congestion, wrinkles, rheumatism and many other ills. It is, nevertheless, to the credit of the potato itself that it outlasted superstition and has become the world’s third largest food crop.

The Potato Takes Root
Ironically, religious persecution may have contributed to the spread and cultivation of the potato around the world. For example, when the Waldensians, a religious group which originated several centuries before the Reformation, were severely persecuted in France, they sought freedom in Northern Italy and elsewhere in Europe. These religious refugees took their technology with them to their new homelands—including the growing of potatoes.

History repeated itself later after the Reformation. In France, progressive Protestant farmers, including Huguenots and Anabaptists (Mennonites) were protected by the Edict of Nantes, which was issued by the popular Protestant King, Henry IV of France, in 1598. However, when under the slogan “one king, one law, one faith” the edict was revoked in 1685 by King Louis XIV, grandson of Henry IV, the subsequent persecution of these religious groups resulted in mass emigration of some of the best French farmers and their agricultural know-how, including potato cultivation. The tolerant countries they moved to, primarily in Northern Europe, benefited at the expense of France.

Towards the end of the 18th century, religious tolerance in France slowly improved, and several Mennonite farmers settled in the Alsace region (northeastern France). One of them, Jacques Klopfenstein, published an agricultural almanac for several decades entitled L’Anabaptiste ou le Cultivateur par Expérience (which is translated as “the Anabaptist or the Experienced Farmer”) in which he offered advice on livestock and many crops including the planting, storage, hilling, sprouting, nutritional value and several other aspects of the potato.

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Cover of the 1818 edition of the almanac L’Anabaptiste ou le Cultivateur par Expérience.

Monument commemorating the introduction of the potato to North America by Presbyterian Scotch-Irish immigrants. Source: Craig Michaud.

Although the potato has probably been introduced into North America on several occasions, it was a group of Presbyterian Scotch-Irish settlers who settled in what is now known as Londonderry, N.H. in 1719 who are credited with the introduction that “took root” and became the cornerstone of potato cultivation in North America.

Praised be the potato!

Hielke De Jong is a retired Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada potato breeder, consultant and co-author of The Complete Book of Potatoes: What Every Grower and Gardener Needs to Know.

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