We just recently harvested our Irish potatoes. Because they grow under the ground, you can never be sure how the crop did until you dig it up. So I was very pleased to find that this year we had a bumper crop. On a scorching hot day, A.J. (my 11-year old helper) and I gathered up nearly 700 pounds of them. They’re now spread on a tarp in the basement being cured for storage. Well, except for the ones I’ve eaten already.
Because I’m a nerd, and I enjoy it, I send out occasional emails to CSA members with trivia or interesting facts about the veggies were growing. Here is a little potato info I shared with them recently in one of their update emails:
We’re going to be harvesting our Irish potatoes soon. We have mostly Kennebeck (whites) but also some Yukon Gold and Pontiac Red.
A little potato trivia for y’all: We grew up referring to potatoes as “Irish potatoes” presumably to distinguish them from sweet potatoes–and potatoes are associated with Ireland thanks to the infamous Irish potato famine. But potatoes actually originated in South America. They were taken back to Spain by returning Spanish missionaries. From there they spread throughout Europe but were regarded as animal fodder–not human food. During the Seven Years War the Prussians fed potatoes to French prisoners of war (believing potatoes were only fit to be eaten by pigs, they reasoned that made them suitable for French prisoners as well). Afterwards a French survivor of one such camp tried to convince starving French peasants to eat them, but it was generally believed that eating potatoes caused leprosy, so they refused. To encourage the peasants, some French parish priests were ordered by their superiors to eat potatoes and declare that they had miraculously made them edible, but the people still didn’t buy it. Later potato flowers became fashionable in the hats of French nobility, so Louis XVI had a potato garden planted and had guards stationed to protect it. This caused the peasants to conclude that the king must be eating potatoes, so they became less reluctant. Once the famines that followed the French Revolution began, folks became desperate enough to eat potatoes and their descendants went on to give the world french fries.
By the middle of the 19th Century the Irish poor and working classes ate almost nothing other than potatoes (which were relatively easy to grow and preserve). When blight struck the potato crop there in the 1840s (the same blight, incidentially, which is now devastating organic tomatoes in the US), it left about 3 million people with virtually nothing to eat. About 1 million Irish people died of starvation and disease and another million emigrated to the U.S. Because of the blight, the Irish population decreased by about 25% and Ireland contributed more immigrants to the US per capita than any other country. Advocates of sustainable agriculture often point to this disaster as evidence of the risk associated with dependency on agricultural monocultures, which are the norm on the huge corporate farms in the American west and midwest.
Our CSA members have either the benefit or disadavantage (depending on perspective) of having a nerd for a farmer. So they not only get potatoes, but a potato history lesson as well.