Book Review:The Potato: How It Changed History

Imagine that we sent a spaceship to Mars and, on the red planet, found a plant whose roots were eaten by Martians. Our scientists discovered that it was a relative of the deadly nightshade family and pressed us to eat it. Today, that might be how we view genetically modified foods, but the real parallel is the potato.

The humble spud had been growing wild for 13,000 years at 12,000ft above sea level in Chile. After 6,000 years, the Incas began to farm it (and store it, deep-frozen, for years). The invading Spaniards came upon the potato in about 1534 and brought it back to Europe 40 years later, where it was met with universal suspicion.

Eventually, needs must, the poorest of the poor (especially in Ireland, where the potato was a staple as early as the 1740s) found it was the perfect crop and this, according to Zuckerman, damned it further. While the sweet potato was considered chic, the ordinary spud was good only for those at the bottom of the heap. Whether he is right to suggest that its slow rise to greatness was caused by social snobbery, it is certain that slang expressions – couch potato, potato head and hot potato – are invariably derogatory.

Zuckerman, a former Peace Corps volunteer, follows the spread of the tuber and the political implications which followed. If he sees this in terms of black and white (Irish good, English bad) at least he is fair enough to give the English credit for the immortal discovery of fish and chips – although the French, it seems, invented the chip.