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Lunch O' the Irish

By Audrey Stallsmith

solanum tuberosum

Let the sky rain potatoes.

William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

Like the tomato to which it is related, the potato initially met with distrust and suspicion. Although it had been cultivated in Peru by the Incas for thousands of years, it was not introduced into Europe until the 1500's.

Because the tubers grow underground, the conquistadors who took them home to Spain called them truffles. Those tubers are not roots, but "lumpy" stems in which the plant hoards its starch supply.

Since the potato is a member of the deadly nightshade family, its leaves and berries do, in fact, possess some of the narcotic and poisonous characteristics common to the clan. But, as long as the tubers are not exposed to light for any length of time, they remain quite innocuous. Still, the very fact that they grow under the earth made them seem unclean, somehow unholy! At one time, they were even believed to cause leprosy.

The potato, called papa by the Incas, probably received its later name because it was confused with the sweet potato, an unrelated plant known as batatas.

The potato was so important to the Incas that they calculated their units of time by how long it took a potato to cook. They often freeze-dried the tubers to make a flour called chuno or brewed them into a beer called chica.

In the Old World, however, the potato remained for some time a delicacy for the rich--and was even considered an aphrodisiac! That is probably why Shakespeare's Falstaff adjured the sky to rain the vegetable. It was still such a novelty when Gerard published his herbal in 1597 that the frontispiece of the book pictured him holding a spray of the plant.

The potato didn't reach Ireland until 1663, but the peasants on that island adopted it wholeheartedly. Due to the constant wars there, they often saw the rest of their crops ravaged by soldiers. But the underground tubers, frequently overlooked by the raiders, saved many a longsuffering family from starvation.

An old Irish saying asserts that "only two things in this world are too serious to be jested on--potatoes and matrimony." Ireland became too dependent on the potato, however--so much so that when a blight devastated the crop from 1845 to 1848, a million people starved. Another desperate million fled the country for America.

The potato, which stands for "benevolence" in the Language of Flowers, had become a staple there as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had introduced what would seem to us a very modern dish--pomme-frites or French fries--in the 1700's. Today we eat approximately 120 pounds of potatoes per person per year.

Fortunately the vegetable is quite nutritious, being composed of 80 percent water, no fat, and a significant enough dose of Vitamin C to prevent scurvy in earlier times. A large percentage of a potato's nutrients and most of the fiber, however, are in the skin--and are lost when the vegetable is peeled. So it is best to leave the skin on when possible.

But do be careful to pare away any green patches. Those show up in tubers which have grown too near the soil surface, and indicate the presence of a poison called solanine. Although that toxin is supposed to be dissipated by cooking--and I've never heard of it actually killing anyone--we should probably cut it out, just in case.

The potato's potassium may keep you from dying after a stroke, and its serotonin-producing tryptophan will improve your mood. That makes the vegetable a real "comfort food!"

Applied to boils, sprains, bruises, or rheumatic limbs, grated raw potato, sometimes mixed with cabbage, is supposed to "draw out" any pus, heat, or pain. More suspect, perhaps, is an old belief that a peeled, raw tuber simply carried in the pocket would cure rheumatism or a toothache.

You might want to try it as a stain remover or knife cleaner, however. When journeying west by wagon train, pioneer women would often take along rose cuttings with the stems stuck in raw potatoes to keep them moist. A half of a spud with a design carved into it also makes a cheap printing block for children.

The once-scorned potato must now pay the price of popularity. Fortunately, it endures being boiled, baked, fried, mashed, sliced, diced, and even riced with placid good humor and unfailing good taste!

Considering that tomato, pepper, eggplant, and petunia also all belong to the "wicked" family named Solanum, perhaps we should hereby resolve to never judge anyone or anything by his/her/its relatives. While we're at it, we can promise to never reject the new or foreign until we've tried it!

Solanum tuberosum image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.