St. Patrick's Day is around the corner, and naturally our minds
turn to all things Irish — including that staple of the Gaelic diet,
However identified they've become with Ireland, potatoes were
originally cultivated by natives of Peru, by some estimates as early
on as 8,000 years ago. This marvelously versatile and nutritious
tuber didn't come into contact with Europeans until the 1500s, when
Spanish Conquistadors brought it back to the continent. Shortly after
that, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced it to the Emerald Isle. By the
time of the great potato famine of 1845, more than one-third of the
Irish population relied almost exclusively on the potato for nutrition,
consuming somewhere between seven and fourteen pounds daily.
Potatoes have always flourished in the upper reaches of the Andes.
Stroll into any open-air mercado in Peru, and you'll see a hugely
diverse range of potatoes spread out on the ground for sale, from red
and brown to gold, white, and even purple. This wide variety helped
protect Andean potato crops from the kind of devastating blight that
attacked their homogeneous Irish cousins in the mid-19th century.
That blight caused more than a million Irish to starve to death, and a
million more to emigrate to the United states and elsewhere.
Potatoes have long been a vital crop in Peru. Since maize and wheat
would not grow in the harsh environment and high elevations of the
Andes, hardy potatoes became the staple of choice. The Moche,
Chimu, and Inca cultures developed frost-resistant species from wild
tubers called papa, which is still their name in Spanish. They were
also the innovators of the freeze-dried potato, or chuño. This chewy-textured potato keeps for months and can be made into a white potato
flour which can be stored for years.
In Andean art, religion, and medicine, the potato appears again and
again. Ancient pottery artifacts were shaped to look like potatoes,
or showed potatoes with human features. The Inca people — who
counted units of time related to how long it took for a potato to cook —
worshipped potato gods who were celebrated and appeased with
rituals and sacrifices. Potatoes were rubbed on the skin as a remedy
for illness. They were even used to divine the truth and predict the
weather. Perhaps most telling is the fact that the Quechua language
includes more than one thousand words to describe potatoes — akin to
the Inuit people's many words for snow.
Today, potatoes are the fourth most important food crop in the world.
A single low-fat tuber contains nearly 50% of an adult's daily vitamin C
requirement, has more protein than maize, and twice the calcium.
At the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru is the world's largest
bank of potato germplasm, including samples of some of the more
than 100 wild species collected in eight Latin American countries.
Nine of these species play a huge role in the economic and nutritional
sustenance of Andean subsistence farmers, and some farmers today
grow as many as 45 different potato varieties in their tiny fields on the
steep Peruvian mountainsides. The Center is constantly working to
save from extinction many of the small, genetically valuable Andean
potato varieties in order to promote the kind of biodiversity that
will, hopefully, ensure that the kind of potato blight that changed the
course of Irish history will never happen again.