The difficulties of pitching potatoes to Prussians
While potatoes are currently the world’s fourth-largest food crop, it’s taken some time to reach that level of popularity. Native to the Andes mountains of South America, potatoes were likely domesticated seven to ten-thousand years ago, but weren’t recorded as leaving that continent until the 16th century. They would eventually go on to be a staple in many cultures’ diets, but even that took some work, including some (possibly apocryphal) deception in Prussia, as told by Christopher Niemann’s The Potato King.
Pushing potatoes on peasants
The story goes that King Frederick II was looking to introduce potatoes to the population of Prussia as part of his efforts to expand farming in his country. The peasants tasted and rejected the tubers, and so the king planned to trick the populace into eating them. He had a garden of potatoes planted, and told his soldiers to guard the plants to make them appear valuable and precious. At night, the soldiers gave a blind eye to curious peasants who came to steal the king’s potatoes. The reverse psychology worked, and Prussians embraced the potato from then on.
While Frederick II did oversee the introduction of the potato (and the turnip) to Prussia, it’s not clear if he had to trick the populace like this. These plants were part of Frederick’s plans to increase the population of the country, which also included founding new villages and draining swamps to increase the amount of farmland available. A relatively easy plant like a potato, which carries significant amounts of vitamins C and B6 as well as a starchy fiber substitute, was a perfect match for such a plan.
Depending on toxic and vulnerable plants
This isn’t to say that these possibly fictional peasants would have been totally wrong in not trusting potatoes. They are part of the same family as poisonous plants like deadly nightshade, carrying compounds intended to protect the plant from predators. These toxins can be found in potato flowers, leaves, berries and even the tubers we normally eat. Breeding and monitoring help keep the solanine levels as low as possible, although do avoid green potatoes since those are likely to be more toxic, especially if undercooked.
While the Prussians of course couldn’t know it at the time, but the success of potatoes would later prove to be a mixed blessing. By depending on a narrow range of potato varieties, European populations were left to the mercy of Phytophthora infestans. This fungus-like infestation quickly spread across the homogeneous crops of plants, causing the potato blight and subsequent Great Irish Famine of 1845. This was obviously outside the scope of Frederick the Great or the pages of The Potato King, although it certainly colors the notion of potatoes being left on the King’s grave each year.
My first grader said: It’s bad that the swamps were drained! What about the animals that lived there?
While Frederick was said to be enamored with his own dogs and horse, even founding a veterinary school, the “taming” of the landscape did certainly reduce the biodiversity of the region.
Source: Christoph Niemann by The Potato King, Owlkids Books