“A New Sort of Potatoe.”[sic]
By Mark Tully
LATE last Fall, I was en route to our compost bin with a potato that had gone bad – it was all black and moldy and generally quite disgusting. My route took me past our garden and just for the heck of it I dug a little hole with my heel, covered it up with dirt and forgot about it.
A month or two later, my moldy potatoe was by now long forgotten, I noticed a strange tomato-like plant in the garden that had been done in by the first frost. I pulled it up with the intention of throwing it on the compost pile and found a dozen or so small spuds dangling from it!
I had never eaten a fresh-from-the-ground potato before so we washed them off and fried the little red potatoes for supper. We were amazed at how much flavor they had!
The potato was first “discovered” in 1532 by the Spaniards when they invaded Peru in search of gold. Potatoes adapted well to the Spanish climate but were primarily used to feed livestock. It took a bit longer for them to be accepted for feeding people as they were at first thought to be evil because they were not specifically mentioned in the bible. In 1588 the Irish were revolting and Queen Elizabeth tried to starve them into submission. It is said a Spanish shipwreck off the coast of Ireland saved the day, as potatoes were found on board. The Irish began planting them in great quantities and the potato quickly became the primary staple of the Irish diet (a situation that ultimately resulted in the great potato famine of 1845 - 1846).
The potato arrived in North America sometime around 1620 when the British
governor of the Bahamas sent some Solanum tuberosum as a gift to the governor of Virginia. However, they were not popular at first as potatoes (as well as tomatoes) were thought to be poisonous because of their close resemblance to nightshade (to which both are closely related). By 1700 potatoes had become a staple food all over Europe and England, and they were gaining popularity in Connecticut as early as the 1720s.1
By the mid 1700s the potato was being recognized as an important food crop for both people and livestock, and several amateur agriculturalists had begun experimenting with higher yields. One such experiment near Bristol in England:
“In the year 1765, being at Clifton, near Bristol, I was informed a person had brought from America a new sort of potatoe, and with some trouble, I procured half a dozen roots of it : as the greatest part of those brought over were already planted. That autumn, I planted three of them, and in the following spring the other three, in my garden at Cardington in Bedfordshire; setting them in hillocks about six feet asunder. ... When I took them up in the autumn, [of] 1766, I found they had increased far beyond any of the common sort, which for some years I encouraged our cottagers to cultivate. …The increase continued to appear in the succeeding year, viz. 1767, as in the last : only, as many of the single potatoes had been then found to weigh four or five pounds each ; I had now planted most of them in drills three feet asunder, in order to procure a greater number, and a less size. Their produce was now from twenty two to thirty pounds from each cutting ; and the potatoes were more sizeable for common use. …I have had, from some hillocks forty-one pounds and a half, allowing for dirt.”2
Potatoes were issued to the troops on several occasions.3
18th-c Potato Varieties
I know the the burning question in everyone’s mind is “which potato variety is the most period-correct?” In my never-ending quest to offer you the most complete and documented information in the hobby I took it upon myself to contact a potato geneticist–Kathy Haynes. On the topic of period-correct potatoes, she responded thus:
“According to the literature I have, potatoes in the North American colonies were received first from Bermuda in 1691, where they had been grown from an earlier importation from England in 1613. Potatoes originated in South America and the first importations to Europe in the late 1500’s were short-day species, meaning they tuberized under short-day conditions. It took 150-200 years of a combination of natural and artificial selection to derive long-day types (which had previously been done naturally as the potato migrated south into Chile in the past, but the Europeans took the ones they found in Venezuela and Columbia). In colonial times then, potatoes would have been a
combination of the result of both asexual propagation (much like varieties of today) and production from true seed (seeds out of the potato fruit, where a lot of segregation occurs and every seedling is different from every other seedling). Since there was no method to ensure varietal uniformity, the term “potato variety” as we know it today would have been meaningless to them. By the mid-1800s, varietal identifications began with such varieties as Rough Purple Chili, Garnet Chili, Early Rose, Brown Beauty, Dakota Red, Early Ohio, Irish Cobbler, Peerless, and Triumph (also known as Red Bliss). Hope this helps!”
In other words, there is apparently no way to know for sure what type of potatoes
the soldiers were issued (see above), so pretty much anything goes.
There are several ways of cooking potatoes in camp. I am told you can bury them in the firepit before starting the morning fire and dig them up later when the fire has died down, but I have not personally tried this method and cannot vouch for its effectiveness. Most of the military rations were boiled in the soldier’s camp kettles and on campaign some soldiers may have even roasted them on the tips of their bayonets.4
Grow Your Own!
My own accidental experiment showed that potatoes are incredibly easy to grow, and as you read this there are no less than SIX big, lush potato plants in our garden! If you plant them early enough you should have a small but tasty crop of spuds by the first event, and with careful management you could have fresh potatoes all season long! Why not pull up the whole plant as you are leaving for an event and amaze your friends (and the public) with your cache of freshly-pulled potatoes? A crop of plump potatoes still dangling from the plant could even provide your camp with “scenario fodder” as numerous period diaries, journals and memoirs make mention of troops from both armies plundering the gardens of the local inhabitants.5
Potatoes; The perfect food?
One medium potato contains: 3 grams of protein, 680 mg of potassium, 2 grams of dietary fiber and 27 grams of carbohydrates.
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