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Gardening: Potatoes went through a long journey to acceptance on our dinner tables

Sandy Kay, rear left, Laura Herbig, center, and Laura Walker, right, help prepare Thanksgiving dinner for up to 800 guests at Mid-City Concerns on  Nov. 25, 2010.  About 100 pounds of potatoes were prepared for the holiday meal. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Sandy Kay, rear left, Laura Herbig, center, and Laura Walker, right, help prepare Thanksgiving dinner for up to 800 guests at Mid-City Concerns on Nov. 25, 2010. About 100 pounds of potatoes were prepared for the holiday meal. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

A Thanksgiving meal just isn’t complete without the mashed potatoes. There are dozens of recipes out there that include garlic, sour cream, butter, cream cheese, cheese and blends with cauliflower or parsnips. Some are secret family recipes passed down from cook to cook along with stories about the people who make them.

Regardless of how you like them, this simple food has a storied history. Potatoes are native to the Andes Mountains of South America. They have been cultivated for 3,000 to 7,000 years, and the wild potato may have been in existence for around 13,000 years. The International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, has documented over 4,000 cultivated varieties of potato.

In the early 1500s, the first Spanish explorers to South America noted that this strange root vegetable was an important part of the culture of the Inca Empire. They recorded that the Incas would mash and then dry the potato to make chuno and store it for later use. Chuno was very portable and could be kept in storage for at least 10 years and served to deter famine if a crop failed. Over time the Spanish added the potato to their basic shipboard rations on the long voyages back to Spain.

By 1570 Spanish farmers were growing the tubers as livestock feed, and by 1600 it had spread to Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal and Ireland. It remained primarily a livestock feed for many years because its leaves resembled the poisonous weed nightshade. Nightshade and potato are in the same botanical family, solanum.

When it was accepted as a food source, it was considered fit only for the poor and starving. Nobody wanted to eat an ugly, lumpy, dirt-covered tuber from the ground if you could afford meat. It wasn’t until a series of wars created food shortages that European governments began encouraging people to grow them. Fredrick the Great of Prussia went so far as to plant a field of potatoes and then put a heavy guard around it. Seeing this, the people thought that with that kind of protection, the potato must be very valuable. In Russia, Catherine the Great had another challenge. Russian Orthodox priests were suspicious of the potato because it had not been mentioned in the Bible. In the new United States, it took Thomas Jefferson serving them at the White House before they became an acceptable food.

After all these doubts and suspicions, it turns out that the Incas were on to something when they made them the base of their food system.

The potato is a very valuable food source. Potatoes supply all the vital nutrients except vitamins D and A and calcium. These can be supplied by adding whole milk to a potato meal. Add to that the fact that the potato can produce more pounds per acre than grain, uses water more efficiently than other crops and grows in a very wide range of climates, it is the perfect food. Enjoy!

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for over 35 years. She is co-author of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook” with Susan Mulvihill. She can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.


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