Antoine Augustin Parmentier by Dumont, 1812
I previously posted a piece on the use of the term Irish potato, to describe potatoes of various shapes and colors, but distinctly different from sweet potatoes, and in line with my determining the frequency with which various foods may have been eaten at Ft. Toulouse between 1717 and 1765, we’ll now look at potatoes on the dining tables of the French.
While potatoes were not much appreciated in France until after Ft. Toulouse was abandoned by the French, potatoes had been commonly eaten in the New World for a hundred years or more by then, and their use might well have encouraged the work of the man who singlehandedly brought about widespread use of the potato in France.
In 1914, Neuilly, France celebrated the centenary of [Antoine-Augustin] Parmentier [1737-1813], “the man who in the days just preceding the revolution, made the potato familiar in France as an article of food”.
At the commencement of the seven years war , Parmentier, a chemist apprentice, obtained a post in the French army, and while in Frankfort became acquainted with the properties of the potato. Later on he contributed an essay on vegetables capable of taking the place of bread, a subject for which a prize was offered by the Besancon Academy. Parmentier wrote of the potato and won the prize. – The Square Deal. Feb. 1914.
Parmentier was an intelligent boy although his father’s premature death limited his early education to a slight knowledge of Latin which he learned at the hand of his mother. In 1755, he entered into an apprenticeship with an apothecary in his city of Birth, Montdidier. In 1756, he went to Paris to continue that business, living with a relation who had settled there previously.
In 1757, he became the apothecary in the hospitals of the army of Hanover. “…when his duties fixed him in any town, he visited the manufactories least known in France, and requested permission to work in the laboratories of the most eminent chemists”. He made copious notes on the work of German farmers and on what he observed when following the army. His work on, “the number and power of resources which nature would present against so many scourges, if she was properly questioned and studied on the subject” would benefit greatly from his imprisonment during the war.
Up to that time the French had ridiculous notions regarding the potato, one of which was that it caused leprosy, and generally avoided them like the black plague, however, Parmentier was imprisoned five times during the Seven Years War and was, “conveyed to places which he never would have otherwise visited; hence he learned, from his own experience, to what length the horrors of famine were sometimes carried, a course of instruction necessary perhaps to kindle in him that fire of humanity with which he was inflamed during the rest of his long life”.
At the end of the war in 1763, he returned to the capital and resumed his studies. In 1766, after much struggle he obtained the position of apothecary in the Invalids which supplied him with the means with which to live while continuing more specific work which would eventually relieve a great deal of suffering. By 1772, he was chief apothecary, an appointment which came with its own set of problems.
The Sisters of La Charité who administered the hospital, had tolerated him until he was promoted to that position and effectually placed on a level with them. After two years of constant harping, the king saw to it that Parmentier would, “retain all the emoluments of his office without discharging any of its duties”.
Without intending it, the good Sisters made it possible for him to pursue his work at a feverish pace and uninterrupted. 1769 had been a time of scarcity in France, and the Academy of Bensacon offered a prize for the best paper on plants which would relieve such want. Parmentier knew several wild plants could provide much needed sustenance in times of scarcity, but they weren’t practical for culture. He remembered his time in German prisons when the only food available was potatoes and settled on the potato as the subject of his paper.
Parmentier was a wise man and knew that a paper alone might easily be overlooked, so he set out to demonstrate the potato’s worth. He planted a field by the road-side and placed watchmen over it during the day to give the impression of great worth. As he hoped, the people viewed it as an item of great importance and entered the fields at night, took the potatoes, and began to see their worth. Realizing he must overcome the idea of the potato being a famine food for the poor in order for it to be totally accepted, he gave a lavish dinner for the wealthier class consisting of several dishes all made from potatoes.
In 1778 he published a “Chemical Examination of the Potato” and was granted some land near the Bois de Boulogne on which to grow the plant. Regardless of the ridicule which the Parisians heaped upon him, Parmentier sowed his seed and when the little white flower appeared, he picked a bunch and presented it to Louis XVI. The King placed it in his buttonhole, and the favor of the court, if not of the city, was won. The seal was set to Parmentier’s labors and the potato finally admitted to the French menus when the chef of the King’s kitchens invented the “pomme soufflé,” a dish worthy of a royal table. – The Square Deal. Feb. 1914.
In 1788, a board of physicians and surgeons wished to place Parmentier as chief apothecary for the army, however, Bayen, Parmentier’s old master, still lived and Parmentier refused to sit above his master. He did agree to serve as Bayen’s assistant. “This institution, like many others, was suppressed by those revolutionists who wished to see no subordination even in medicine; but necessity soon dictated its restoration under the name of the Council of Health for the Armies; and Parmentier, whom the reign of terror had driven from Paris, was recalled to become one of its members. He exhibited, in this career, the same zeal as in every other; and the hospitals of the army were under incalculable obligations to him…”
His list of accomplishments is long. “He took an active part in recommending economical soups, he contributed greatly to the propagation of vaccination; it was chiefly he who produced, in the hospitals of Paris, that regularity which now prevails in the apothecary’s department; he superintended the great bakehouse where all the bread for the hospitals is baked…he paid the most scrupulous attention to every thing that could better the condition of 800 old persons of both sexes who fill it”.
Few men live to achieve the respect that Parmentier did, however, being so intent upon his work cost him in his personal life. He never married, and lived many years with his sister, Madame Houzeau who supported his philanthropy. By the time Parmentier became affected with a chronic affectation of the chest, however, his sister had gone to her reward leaving him quite alone. He died on 17 Dec., 1813 at the age of 77. – Cuvier’s Eulogy, delivered at the Institute. Monthly Mag. June 1815, republished in the Encyclopaedia Londinesis, Or, Universal Dictionary of the Arts. Vol. 18. 1821. London.
Thankfully, Parmentier lived to see his efforts at making the potato a complete success in one of the last countries to accept it a success. In one of his last books he wrote, “The potatoe has now none but friends, even in those districts from which the spirit of system and of contradiction seemed to have banished it for ever”. In his eulogy it was acknowledged that twice within the last 20 years prior to M. Parmentier’s death, that the potato had averted great horrors of famine and certain starvation of the French people.