Today, most potatoes are grown in Europe. (Here’s a map.) But originally, getting Europeans to eat the tuber was not so simple.
Potatoes first made their way into Europe in the late 1500s via Spanish conquistadors, but only in small amounts. Even though Europe was subject to famines in that period (with a vicious one striking much of Western and Northern Europe in the 1590s), the people of the area still were slow to adopt the potato into their diets. The potatoes looked ugly with things sticking out of them; potatoes were more bland than flavorful; they even smelled nondescript. Potatotes were relegated to use for animals (who also did not really enjoy them) and were considered an exotic — in a bad way — import from the land of godless heathens.
In Germany, this belief carried through the 1700s, into the reign of Fredrick the Great, the King of Prussia, who sat on the throne from 1740 until his death in 1786. Fredrick ruled Prussia during a time period called the “Little Ice Age,” a period of cooler temperatures (which may have begun as early as 1250) throughout the Northern Hemisphere — and, in specific concern to Fredrick — resulted, again, in famine. Fredrick looked for a way to diversify the diets of his people in a way to avoid widespread hunger, and turned his attention to the potato.
Like any good despot, Fredrick simply decreed that his wishes become true: in 1774, he mandated that everyone must cultivate, harvest, and eat potatoes. And like any good populace, the people refused, with some noting that even dogs refuse the things. Other sovereigns in Europe tried similar tactics, with similar results — even the threat of force or incareration was not enough to get Europeans to grow (and eat) potatoes.
But unlike the other kings and queens of his time, Fredrick did not give up. Instead, he changed course, banning the potato from being used — by anyone other than royalty, that is. As legend has it, he set up a royal potato garden replete with royal guardsmen “protecting” the crop from commoners (but, of course, the guards were instructed to do nothing to would-be “thieves”). His ruse worked, as the crop began to appear — somehow! — in the gardens of Germans near and far.
Bonus fact: Mashed potatoes are sometimes used as stand-ins for ice cream — at least in photo shoots. (The taste would give it away in real life.) When companies advertise ice cream cones, novelties, etc., it is easier to use the non-melting potatoes in lieu of the ice cream itself. But ads for ice cream are the real McCoy: the Federal Trade Commission (in the U.S., at least) mandates it.
From the Archives: Frozen Notes: Another effect of the Little Ice Age? Stradivarii violins, perhaps.
The story above was discovered via this excellent TED talk.
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