Thursday, March 06, 2008

Let's commemorate the Potato!

Don’t you think the world should be paying tribute to the potato, that ubiquitous tuber, the essential ingredient into so many dishes, from masala dosas to beer-battered fries to its mashed form that is indispensable to Americans on Thanksgiving? Just yesterday I myself cooked and enjoyed potatoes for dinner with onions, garlic, turmeric and some red chili powder.

Indeed, the United Nations too has recognized the need to commemorate: 2008, it has declared, is the International Year of the Potato. This might sound comical, but if you look at the economic impact of the potato over the last five hundred years it’s quite appropriate. Which is why The Economist also has a series of articles in its latest issue acknowledging contributions. Consider this one, Spud we like:
Unlikely though it seems, the potato promoted economic development by underpinning the industrial revolution in England in the 19th century. It provided a cheap source of calories and was easy to cultivate, so it liberated workers from the land. Potatoes became popular in the north of England, as people there specialised in livestock farming and domestic industry, while farmers in the south (where the soil was more suitable) concentrated on wheat production. By a happy accident, this concentrated industrial activity in the regions where coal was readily available, and a potato-driven population boom provided ample workers for the new factories. Friedrich Engels even declared that the potato was the equal of iron for its “historically revolutionary role”.
And how can we forget what it did to Ireland in 1845, when a million died and a million others emigrated?


Delve deeper into history and we find that the potato wasn’t even available to Europe, Asia and Africa before the 16th century. Not only that, tomatoes, maize and chilies were not available either– yes chilies too were absent, believe it or not! The inescapable conclusion is that food must have been quite dull before the Spanish sailed to the Americas and brought back these culinary treasures. All these crops were first domesticated in Mexico, Central or South America a very long time ago. Potatoes were first domesticated in Peru 7000 years ago; the country now has 3500 edible varieties.

Here's the important lesson. There are many things today that we enjoy and take for granted. But if we understand their origins well, we learn that had it not been for trade and exchanges across cultures – the phenomenon we call globalization today, and which is much-maligned – we wouldn’t be enjoying them at all. And just because something comes from a different, faraway land does not mean that a community or culture or nation cannot add its own distinctness to that import. Did the Italians not combine pasta with tomato, a New World crop, to come up with something that is considered uniquely theirs?

Needless to say, this doesn’t apply only to food, vegetables and crops; there are parallels in a host of other areas. One only has to look.

Both pictures from The Economist. And an earlier post on another thing we take for granted: agriculture. And an even earlier post on how the supercontinent Pangaea broke into the continents of today, and how after 1492 the seams of Pangaea have been knitted again, not literally but through a massive exchange of crops, animals and people, now called the Columbian Exchange.

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