Feast or Famine – The Amazing Potato

Phytophthora infestans and Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!  This was not the cry of the Irish in 1845. The potato’s (genus: Solanum) history takes us from the mountains of Peru to the hills of Ireland, only one of the many migrations this lowly tuber has traveled. Initially, during the 1600s, the potato was enjoyed only by royalty and nobles.  That all changed as the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the world during the 1800s.  Before that time, “the potato made no progress as a food of the people, until industrialists discovered that the easiest way to produce cheap goods, in order to capture the foreign market, was to pay the lowest living wage,” (Professor R.N. Salaman). Low wages meant very little money for food and the cheapest food on the market was the potato. This vegetable became the main or only food for the men, women, and children employed by the factory owners. It was a survivor’s only meal- three times a day. Then the potato crop failed.

The original diet of the Irish in the early 1800s consisted of meat, milk and oatmeal. Due to a long, devastating war with England the countryside of Ireland with its crops and cattle were destroyed. What remained was not enough to feed the small country.  It was around this time the potato arrived and became the new staple food of the people.  It could be prepared in the same pot to feed the family and the livestock~ morning, noon, and night. The perfect plant nutritionally was also easy to cultivate.  Preparing the ground, sowing and harvesting took only three months, but not enough to keep up with the bulging population and oppression of the British.  During the summer of 1845, the potato crop was at its best. Then it happened.  A light drizzle, drenching rain, and wind followed by a deathly stillness in the air,  the perfect breeding ground for fungus, specifically Phytophthora infestans. From that fateful summer of 1845 through the growing seasons of 1845, total crop failure.  Within five years, one fourth of the total population of Ireland died because of the potato famine. Modern science has come a long way in developing plant species, cultivation, and treatment of pathogens to avert crop tragedies like the potato famine of 1845. So, as you enjoy your potatoes this St. Patrick’s Day remember the Irish!