The potato is often characterized as humble, but in truth the tuber fueled the rise of empires and literally changed the world.
Born in the Andes Mountains between Peru and Bolivia over 8,000 years ago, potatoes were the main ingredient in the Incan diet—especially when freeze-dried into chuño, which keeps unrefrigerated for years with its nutritional properties intact. Chuño sustained Incan armies and villagers alike, providing the sustenance needed to build one of the world’s largest empires, a 2,500-mile-long swath of land inhabited by 12 million people.
Potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century, courtesy of Spanish conquistadors who ferried them across the Atlantic. By nourishing the continent’s burgeoning population, potatoes contributed to the rise of the European empires that ruled the world until the end of WWII. When the knobby, odd-looking root vegetables arrived, they were hardly an overnight sensation. Considered strange and poisonous—and even believed to cause everything from syphilis to leprosy—potatoes were actually illegal in France from 1748 to 1772. That changed when both rulers and villagers realized that potatoes had significant agricultural advantages over wheat, Europe’s prevailing staple. The crop yielded four times more calories per acre and could be grown in a wider range of soils and climates. (Potatoes were also harder to steal or tax since they grow underground.)
Today, there are over 4,000 varieties around the globe, and many grow well in the Hudson Valley. Jean Paul Stewart-Courtens, who runs Philia Farm in Johnstown, has extensive experience growing potatoes. His personal favorites—all developed by Cornell University—are Keuka Gold, Red Maria, Eva, and Salem. Keuka Gold, Cornell’s take on Yukon Gold (which are native to Ontario), was bred to handle drastic temperature swings, short growing seasons, and uneven rainfall. Red Maria is a good all-purpose potato that retains moisture when baked and holds its shape for potato salad. While white varieties Salem and Eva are both good mashers, Eva is superior for frying.
If you’re interested in trying to grow your own, know that potatoes sprout from chunks of the tuber known as seed potatoes. Stewart-Courtens recommends selecting certified seed stock from farms, trusted nurseries and garden centers, or businesses like Hudson Valley Seed Company. (Don’t plant supermarket potatoes, they’re treated to resist sprouting; potatoes from farmers markets are OK!) Potatoes should be planted in the spring and harvested after the foliage has died back, usually in September. To prepare for planting, let potatoes sprout on the windowsill then cut them into pieces with at least one to three sprouts per piece. Cure—aka let them sit out in temperatures of 45–60 degrees—for a day or two to prevent rot and plant in shallow trenches, at least 14 inches apart. Cover with three inches of soil, continually apply a biodegradable mulch (deep hay or straw mulch work best), and make sure that the potatoes are well watered while flowering.
Next fall, when you’ve harvested your potatoes, store them in a cool, dark, place. Avoid the refrigerator (the cold temperature will turn the starches into sugars) and don’t keep them near onions because their gases will accelerate sprouting.
Despite its inauspicious start, today the potato is the most popular vegetable in the world, largely due to French fries but also thanks to such national specialties as Irish colcannon (potatoes mashed with cabbage), Indian saag aloo (a spicy potato-spinach curry), and potato dumplings like Polish pierogi and Italian gnocchi. In the unlikely event that you need more of an incentive to savor the potato, keep in mind that they are packed with vitamins and minerals (especially potassium, and vitamins C and B6), high in fiber, fat free, and can help elevate serotonin levels—making potatoes natural mood boosters.