For those who have spent a significant amount of time in the lovely province of Prince Edward Island, it’s hard to argue that potatoes aren’t a part of the Island’s identity. It’s easy to forget though that this wonderful and delicious tuber is only a recent addition to not only Canada, but to North America in general.
How much do you really know about potatoes? Here are some interesting facts about our delicious taters:
The potato was first domesticated in the country we currently know as Peru. Archeological research can’t pinpoint an exact time of origin; however, it’s believed that cultivation of the crop could have taken place as far back as 10,000 years ago. Surviving specimens of the potato have been found as far back as 2,500 BC!
Before the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas, the Inca civilization built itself a powerful Empire in the west of South America, which at its peak ruled from Ecuador to Chile. Since the Incas originated from Peru, it’s not surprising they held a specific reverence for the crop and considered it an important part of their regular diet.
However, they appear to have taken their dependence one step further. The Incas preserved their potatoes by turning them into Chuño, a freeze-dried form of potato that was made through constant stomping using their bare feet, along with repeated exposure to the hot and cold Andean days and nights. This was such an effective method for food preservation that the potatoes could be stored for a decade after harvest.
After the conquest of the Incan civilization by the Spanish during the first half of the 1500s, Spanish sailors and conquistadors recognized the value of potatoes as an important food source — potatoes yielded two to four times more calories per acre than grain. Even though they weren’t widely adopted as a crop in Europe until the 1600s, by the 1800s, it had become one of the most important foods throughout all of Europe and comprised 10% of the caloric intake of the average European.
Interestingly, potatoes were viewed as dangerous by the Europeans when they were first introduced. Unlike previous crops they had experience with, potatoes grew out of cut up pieces of the tuber rather than seeds, which aroused suspicion among Europeans. For that reason, outside of Spain and Ireland, it was used to feed cattle and prisoners. But when a French soldier by the name of Augustin Parmentier was taken as a Prussian prisoner of war, he noticed, to his surprise, that his health was perfectly maintained by his potato-heavy diet. When his days of duty ended, he became a leading nutritional chemist who eventually served in the court of the French King Louis XVI and lobbied for the mass harvesting of potatoes in the European continent, thus beginning a period of mass adoption.
The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and 1900s, one of the most significant progressive leaps forward in human history, was partially inspired by the humble potato. With the surges of people moving from the country to the cities to become urban workers, the potato served as a cheap source of calories that were easy to cultivate. This resulted in population booms that strengthened the new economy and industrial development to the point that Friedrich Engels, a Marxist thinker, referred to the potato as “the equal of iron for its historically revolutionary role”.
Potatoes were first introduced to Prince Edward Island in the middle of the 18th century. Soon after, Britain took notice but widespread planting of the crop did not commence until the 19th century. In 1802, settlers from the Scottish highlands were brought to the Island to clear the large dense forests that covered PEI. Because of the lack of cleared land, the settlers planted between the stumps of the trees they had cut down.
While it was originally planted mainly for sustenance, it didn’t take long for it to turn into an export good to other colonies before expanding abroad, with international shipments beginning as early as the 1820s. The importance of the potato for the economy of the province only grew since its humble beginnings. It remains an integral crop that’s at the very foundation of our culture, lifestyle and reputation of our province.
Did any of these facts surprise you? Do you know any other interesting facts about the potato? Comment below and share!