Book review: Feeding the People (with potatoes)

(The Packer)

Potatoes aren’t mentioned in the Bible but that omission didn’t hold back the popularity of the root vegetable when European explorers brought it back from the Americas.

Potatoes are the red-letter gospel truth for millions of global consumers, and Rebbeca Earle chronicles the rise of the potato in the book Feeding the People; The Politics of the Potato.

The readable and exhaustively sourced book has won strong reviews in and The Telegraph and The New York Times.

I received a copy of the book to review recently.

The book unwinds the centuries-long rising appreciation of the potato in our modern world, from near total obscurity in garden plots to a basic foodstuff for entire nations. Over time, governments had a real interest in helping their subjects have accessible food, and potatoes were front and center in that. 

“From the late seventeenth century political theorists had begun to identify food as an important component in building a strong state,” the author writes.

At the same time, growers deserve much of the credit for the spud’s rise, the author said.

“The potato’s history reminds us not to overlook the contributions of small-scale agriculture to the larger history of innovation and change,” he said.

While potatoes were new to Europe 500 years ago, wild potatoes were being eating “from Chile to Utah” 12,000 years ago, Earle writes.  

The book’s acknowledgments, notes and bibliography and index together total more than 85 pages. A few of  the intriguing index listings deal with Nazi food policy, Ireland’s Great Famine and America’s best gift (the potato, of course!), potatoes “incite lust” and “lazy potato blood.”

Another delightful part of the book is the smattering of potato recipes “through the years,” such as a recipe for truffles (an early name for potatoes) from a 1604 European cookbook.

In her conclusion, Earle said the book helps explain “the genealogy of our conviction that eating is at once a personal matter, and a legitimate arena for governmental intervention.”

We can see that tension today in the government’s dietary guidelines. It is in the interest of our nation if we would all eat five (or ten) fruits and vegetables a day. but most of us do not.

If we only would. We have no one to blame but ourselves. And the billions spent advertising junk food.

“Just as William Buchanan had insisted in 1797 that potatoes would end poverty for everyone except ‘the profligate’, so the language of personal responsibility and choice implies that those who fail to thrive have only themselves to blame,” Earle writes.

Buy the book for its fascinating record of the potato’s journey, but don’t overlook it’s  revealing insight that governmental  efforts to shape a stronger society through better eating have been with us for generations.

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