Early illustration of a potato vine
The potato took an interesting route in getting on our dinner tables from South America. Personally, I don’t believe it is possible to pin point the first known consumption of a potato in Europe or in the U.S. There are numerous accounts referring to the first use, but they are simply the first use the writer was aware of. There may have been people who ate them much earlier and just didn’t have the ability or means to document it.
I don’t believe it is possible to label any one place outside their native habitat as the absolute first place someone ate a potato either. I do, however, think others with far more time to research the matter than I agree that the first known written word on potatoes was by the Spaniards ca. 1532.
Some unknown author peering at his paper through dim flickering candlelight once wrote that potatoes were first carried to Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh (some say Sir Francis Drake), and one then another copied his account to the point it eventually became gospel.
Among such accounts is one from Sir Robert Southwell, President of the Royal Society, who declared the potato was introduced in Ireland by his grandfather on 3 December, 1693 after he had obtained it from Sir Walter Raleigh.
I have no doubt his grandfather may have gotten potatoes from Sir Walter Raleigh because why would someone need to lie about such a thing? His believing it to have been the first did not make it so, it was merely the first account he was aware of, or it was family legend which oftentimes can be quite tainted in its accuracy.
His information is flawed because several translators have placed the potato in the hands of the Spaniards who are said to have been growing it by around 1570 and from where it spread through Europe and Ireland. That’s a difference of 123 years.
We do know that the potato had so long been the major crop grown in Ireland that when blight wiped out the crops severe famine followed, the worst of which was in the 1840’s.
Some early references regarding potato culture give us some idea of its commonality in Europe and from there it made its way into the U.S. with the European immigrants.
A few of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes
In London in 1586, A. Smythe-Palmer wrote of a guest being, “shocked and outraged beyond endurance because a dependent at the dinner-table of his host suggested that he, the Beau, might help him to a potato with his own fork.” – Smythe-Palmer, Abram. The Ideal of a Gentleman: or, A Mirror for Gentlefolks. 1586. London.
John Gerard was growing potatoes in his garden which he wrote about in his Herball in 1597. He called it the potato from Virginia; however, if it was a true potato it is unlikely it came from the North American colonies that early. If it actually came from Virginia, which could just mean from the colonies in the New World, it was probably one of dozens of wild native tubers similar to a potato but not a true potato.
A book printed for Richard Wodnothe in Leadenhall Street, London, in 1655 said the potato crop affected a large number of farmers in the country and kept many employed thus we know its culture had grown into a fairly large scale operation by then. Abstracts on Money, Prices, and Agriculture in the United Kingdom. Vol. 1. 1655. London.
Potatoes supposedly matured two months sooner than in England when grown in salt-peter enriched soil in Jamaica although several factors influenced the growth of any plant, not the least of which was temperature and rainfall. Philosophical Transactions: Giving Some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies and Labours of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World. Printed for John Martyn, Printer for the Royal Society. 1669.
William Dampier seems to have distinguished a difference in potatoes and yams as he listed both in 1699. – Dampier, William. A New Voyage Around the World. London.
A Portuguese writer wrote of a root like the potato, or batata in 1609 which he thought poisonous. There are stories of people cooking the plant and throwing out the root in the earliest days of potato consumption which probably did cause sickness making some believe the potato was poisonous. Being declared a member of the nightshade family didn’t help its popularity. – Hacklvyt, Richard. Virginia Richly Valued: by the Description of the Main Land of Florida. 1609. London.
John Smith wrote in 1613 of a ship that went to Virginia and, “thence home”, and brought the first potato roots, “which flourished exceedingly for a time, till by negligence they were almost lost (all but two cast away roots) that so wonderfully have increased, they are a main release to all the Inhabitants”. This is evidence potatoes were being grown in the American colonies in the earliest part of the 1600’s. – Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. 1632. London.
John Worlidge wrote in 1700 that potatoes were much used as bread in Ireland and America. “They grow in any good mellow ground and are increased by planting them as the scorzonera”. – Worlidge, John. Systema Horti-culturae. 1700. London.
Bosman wrote of potatoes which, “runs across the ground”. They were oval shaped, perfectly white within, and were boiled or roasted and eaten for bread. He claimed they tasted something like boiled chestnuts. Although he says they were white, the plants running across the ground is probably a sweet potato. – Bosman, Willem. A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea Divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory Coasts. 1705. London.
In 1704, Churchill called it the patattes of the Portuguese and said the Dutch, “boiled them with fish and flesh, excelling in taste and sweetness much like parsnips or artichokes, and they were also eaten raw with salt, oil, and vinegar like a Salad, but are not of so easie a digestion then. The best way is to roast them in the ashes which makes them taste like chestnuts”. – Churchill. A Collection of Voyages and Travels. 1704. London.
The diet of the inhabitants of the western islands of Scotland at the beginning of the 18th century consisted primarily of little flesh, only those of distinction having it every day, and boiled more than roasted. “Their ordinary diet is butter, cheese, milk, potatoes, colworts, brochan, i.e. oatmeal and water boil’d.” That remark shows that potatoes were a large part of the common family’s diet by that time and probably for some time prior. – Martin, Martin. A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland. 1716. London.
Richard Bradley included potatoes in his list of vegetables in 1718. New Improvements in Planting and Gardening: Both Philosophical and Practical. London.
He called them, “potatoes of Spain”, batatas or pappas in Dictionarium Botanicum. 1728. London.
John Nott listed potatoes as an ingredient in eleven receipts in his The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary. They were baked into pies or made into stews or fricasees. – Nott, John. The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary. 1723. London.
Numerous internet sites place potatoes in U.S. gardens in 1621 when gifted to the governor of Virginia, although this writer did not locate a primary source verifying that information. I have neither the time nor the inclination at this time of digging deep enough to prove or debunk that statement. John Smith’s account predates this by 8 years anyway.
We know they were eaten at all times of day by 1711 as evidenced by an old diary entry dated Feb. 5, 1711, saying the writer had breakfasted on ham and potatoes. – The Montreal Gazette. Nov. 3, 1939.
They were listed among the garden plants grown by William Byrd in the 1730’s. William Byrd’s Natural History of Virginia, translation by Richard Croom Beatty and William J. Mulloy from a German edition printed in 1737. (Dietz Press. 1940. Richmond.
An account from 1797 extolled the virtues of potatoes and outlined the ways they were commonly prepared. The English and probably American colonists served them roasted or boiled and eaten with butter, sometimes with the skin on and sometimes with it peeled away, and chopped into small pieces and served with butter or fried bacon. They were used in making hash, roasted in pan drippings, and made into lobscouse. “No vegetable is, or ever was, applied to such a variety of uses in the north of England as the potato; it is a constant standing dish, at every meal, breakfast excepted, at the tables of the rich, as well as the poor…” – The Analytical Review, or History of Literature, Domestic and Foreign. 1797. London.
The Scots were regularly enjoying their champit [mashed] potatoes by the early eighteenth century, if not before as evidenced by a study done by the Highland and Agricultural Society. Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. 1737. Edinburgh.
T. Williams published a receipt called To Dress Potatoes in 1797. The cook was to put them in a saucepan with very little water and simmer them until the skin started to crack. The water was drained off before serving them. His stuffed chine of pork was served with applesauce and potatoes, and he offered a receipt for a potato pudding. For his lamb pie and veal pie he specified the use of Spanish potatoes indicating he may have used both varieties. – Williams, T. The Accomplished Housekeeper and Universal Cook. 1797. London.
Cholesterol wasn’t an issue when the early receipts were published for fried potatoes. Large amounts of butter bulked up the calorie intake for hard working farm-class families.
Pare and slice potatoes half an inch thick; then wipe them dry, flour, and put them into boiling hot lard or dripping, and fry them of a light brown colour. Then drain them dry, sprinkle a little salt over, and serve them up directly with melted butter in a sauce boat. – Mollard, John. The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined. 1802. London.
To make John Mollard’s Creamed Potatoes the cook was to peel and quarter the potatoes and boil them until half done. They were then drained and salt, cream, and butter were added. The potatoes simmered slowly until done without breaking them apart.
Mashed potatoes contained the same ingredients but were mashed up before serving them. He offered the option of placing the mashed potatoes into scallop dishes and browning them with a salamander before taking them to table.
George Johnson’s receipt for Fried Potatoes basically produced home fries, and by partially precooking them he greatly reduced the amount of cook time needed to fry them golden brown. A receipt that talks of putting food into boiling fat is to some degree discussing deep frying and not pan frying.
Fried Potatoes are also very nice; the best plan is to boil more than you require for your meal the day before, and when half done, take a few out of the saucepan, and the next day they will be firm enough to cut into thin slices, which are to be put into a frying pan in which there is some boiling dripping; fry them till they are nicely browned, and before putting them on the dish sprinkle some pepper and salt over them. – Johnson, George. The Cottage Gardener. 1801. London.
In closing, this article is meant to be a general over-view of early potato use and history. It is not meant to be the end-all, covered-everything history which would obviously require much more space than I have. Perhaps this has inspired you to whip up a potato dish or two.
Blissful meals yall, – The Historic Foodie©