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February 2014

Johnny Potatoseed
By Dennis Linden

Russet Potatoes

Today the potato is the world's fourth largest food crop, behind rice, wheat and corn. However, the tuber had very different popularity demographics in the 17th Century. With the exception of Ireland, the rest of Europe did not consider the potato fit for human consumption and used it as hog fodder. The tuber was only eaten by the desperately poor or sometimes fed to jail inmates as cheap nourishment and further punishment. Being related botanically to the deadly nightshade family, there was a myth that the vegetable was poisonous. There were medical papers published claiming potatoes caused leprosy. While the Catholic Church declared the potato an indecent Protestant vegetable that incited lust!

Like so many other foods that are a staple in the American diet, the potato was first cultivated by those ancient foodies, the Aztecs, and introduced to Europe by their Spanish conquerors. However, it took the guile and culinary inventiveness of an 18th Century French pharmacist to get the potato out of the pig pen and onto the dinner table.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a chemist and pharmacist who joined the French Army in 1757 to fight against Germany. Unfortunately, Antoine proved to be a much better pharmacist than soldier, being captured a record-breaking five times and spending the next several years in several prison camps. While his incarceration locations varied, the prison menu didn’t: potatoes and water. Contrary to the rest of his fellow inmates, who ate their “pig food” begrudgingly, Antoine developed a real liking for the vegetable. He decided that the tuber was the delicious and nutritious answer to European food security; he resolved to promote the potato as a viable food source worth cultivating for market. Hmmm, perhaps the call of the prison menu might have influenced Antoine’s willingness to be caught! Five times? Who’s kidding who?

Eventually Antoine did get his freedom permanently and headed back to his homeland with his new-found passion for potatoes. He became the Julia Child of his day, staging cooking demonstrations of the tuber all over France; inviting prominent politicians and celebrities to attend these event in hopes of gaining their endorsement for the vegetable’s propagation and use in the kitchen. Parmentier was convinced that the potato, being highly nutritious and so easy to grow in abundance on a small amount of land, could be a safeguard against starvation in hard times, especially for the lower classes. Remember, this was a very elitist France, before heads started rolling in The Revolution.

Antoine’s efforts caught the eye and culinary curiosity of Louis XVI and on Oct. 21, 1787 the culinary future of the potato was changed forever. A banquet was held on that fateful evening, the menu designed and prepared by Antoine Parmentier. In attendance was the King of France, the infamous Marie Antoinette and the U.S. minister to France by the name of Benjamin Franklin. It was an impressive twenty-course dinner; each dish featuring potatoes prepared in a different way. From soup to dessert (a potato tart) the meal was also complemented by several sauces, biscuits and breads, all potato-based. Even the after-dinner coffee was laced with potato starch.

The meal was such a success that Louis XVI supposedly declared at its end, ‘‘France will thank you some day for having found a ‘bread’ for the poor.’’ In fact, the potato did not really become popular in this country until Franklin returned to America singing the praises of the potato. Soon, because of Franklin’s efforts, the tuber was being farmed in the colonies and being spread to remote regions of the western frontier due to the vegetable’s easy-to-grow characteristics.

Winning over the sophisticated palates of the privileged was one thing; overcoming the prejudices and myths of the peasant class was a PR problem that Antoine solved with a little reverse psychology. He convinced the king to let him grow potatoes on several plots in the royal garden. Plots that he had fenced and watched over by royal guards during the day. Guards that he purposely removed at night. Having created the impression of great value in this crop – enough value to warrant fencing and guarding -- it was not long before the absence of security enticed the opportunistic to steal some of the tubers under the cover of darkness. Thus turning a vegetable, heretofore fit for pigs, into a highly prized delicacy on the French black market, which became Antoine’s unwitting wholesale potato distributor! The rest, as they say, is potato history.

So is Parmentier the one we should all thank for French Fries? Actually, potato history is unclear on this point. There is culinary evidence that someone in Belgium was frying up spuds a hundred years before Antoine’s infamous royal potato party. That menu did make reference to “fritters” being served; we must assume that it was a potato fritter, which is a version of the fry. My vote goes to Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737–1813) – definitely the original Mr. Potato Head, who must have certainly tried dropping slices of his favorite tuber into a vat of boiling oil during one his many cooking demos? Today, on menus around the world, the word Parmentier signifies that a dish has a potato base to it i.e. Soup Parmentier. The world thanks you, Antoine, for being a lousy soldier!