Potatoes: History, Descriptions and Uses

The potato, a food staple of people around the world and a major crop even in countries where the potato is not consumed in large quantities, has an interesting history, formed as its cultivation and popularity spread from one continent to another, overcoming myth and religious dogma to eventually achieve its present popularity.

The potato, not to be confused with its cousin the sweet potato or the unrelated but sort of similar yam, was first found growing wild near the west coast of South America around 13,000 years ago and is believed to have been first cultivated about 6,000 years later 11,000 feet above sea level in the Andean plateaus, flourishing where other vegetation would not grow. Peru became a center for potato growing, with at one time, centuries ago, over 200 varieties under cultivation
Russet Potatoes

Russet Potatoes

In the 1530s, Spanish Conquistadors in Peru found them delightful, and by the 1570s began transporting them back to Spain.

Europeans generally were loath to accept this new specie as edible, as the potato, being a member of the nightshade family, was widely believed to be poisonous. Eventually though, Spanish farmers grew large crops of potatoes to feed the poor, and eventually their planting and use as inexpensive food for the needy spread to northern Italy. Eventually potato cultivation and consumption spread to Switzerland,
France, and Germany, in large part as the easy-to-grow and easy-to-prepare crop became a fine preventative of the famines that regularly beset Europe. As the potato also found its way across the channel to the British Isles, this became particularly true in Ireland, where at first it was a salvation to prevent famine, but then through the epic “Potato Famine”, diseases that wiped out their previously massive potato crops caused the country’s worst famines in history.

But, the Irish potato famine resulted in mass immigration of the Irish to the US, and with them the love for and cultivation of, the potato. While some Irish immigrants had brought potatoes to New England as early as the 1710s, or so, large scale cultivation did not begin until the late 18th century, and then for use primarily as cattle fodder and as food for slaves. In the early 19th century, missionaries, sweeping across America and “civilizing” native Americans, brought to them the potato, and by mid-century, gold prospectors heading to the California Gold Rush brought them the rest of the way west. Potatoes had become a major crop in Utah, and it was Mormons moving northward that eventually brought the potato to Idaho, eventually leading to that state’s dominance over the US potato industry.

These potatoes being grown across America and specifically in Idaho were very different from the originals brought to American by the Irish. In the 1870s, Luther Burbank had developed a new type of potato, the rough-skinned Russet Burbank, which by the 1880s became the dominant crop in Idaho. Eventually, one-third of all US-grown potatoes, and 99% of all Idaho potatoes, were to be Burbank or other similar varieties of the Russet. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of new potato varieties becoming available and gaining popularity. In fact, though, many such varieties are not
really new, but are rather types that were little thought of or cultivated in numbers for decades (or centuries) but which have regained interest, and popularity, in a modern culture desirous of new and different foods, fueled by today’s immediate spread of information across the country and the world.

But the popularity of the potato as seen today and in the recent past was not always so, for very specific reasons. As stated above, when the potato first arrived in Europe, it was thought by many to be poisonous, and many groups thought dangerous on religious and other grounds. In fact, before refrigeration, as with other foodstuffs, potatoes were prone to rotting when stored for a long period, and potatoes could develop toxic alkaloids. But, the myths of the dangerous and possessed potato went much further, with a wealth of reasons being advanced to
Potato And Onion Storage Baskets

See Storage Baskets and Bins
for your Potatoes

not grow and eat potatoes:
  • In Scotland, Protestant ministers said potatoes were ungodly because they were not mentioned in the bible
  • Religious people felt that anything that grew so deep in the earth was a tool of the devil and that only vegetation that could easily be pulled from the dirt, like a carrot, should be eaten
  • Others were fearful of the fact that when put in water to cook, potatoes turned the water dark, and they believed potatoes would do so to the earth (and maybe to them?)
  • Priests in France in the early 17th century believed that potatoes caused leprosy
  • Protestants in part of Europe thought the potato to be an aphrodisiac, which to many in those days was probably a worse result than leprosy
  • The snobbish aristocracy believed for generations that the potato was the food of the poor and lowest classes, not fit for society’s upper crust. This was even seen in America, with John Adams once saying during the time of the revolution that he would rather eat “potatoes and water” than submit to the English
Today, potatoes are the world’s number one vegetable crop, and while the Chinese rarely eat potatoes, they are
Heirloom Potatoes

Heirloom Potatoes

the world’s number one potato producing country.

Here are some of the most popular types of potatoes available today:

Russet: The gold standard in 20th and 21st century potatoes, especially in the US, their uses include baking, frying, mashing, roasting and boiling. They are typically large, elongated, oval-shaped with a net-like texture to the skin and russet-brown coloring and white flesh that has a high starch content and a slightly nutty flavor. Russet varieties include the Burbank Russet, Norgold Russet, Goldrush, and Russet
Norkotah, most of which have been developed through University agriculture department efforts to cross-breed to improve quality.

Good quality Russet potatoes will be firm and should have few eyes, and those few eyes should be shallow. Avoid potatoes that are soft, wrinkled, have any sprouts, have cuts in the skin or are green-tinted. Prolonged exposure to light causes greening and makes the potato taste bitter, and also develop solanine, which can cause health problems. Any green areas should be cut off before using (The rest of the potato is fine).

Other White Potatoes: Yes, the Russet is a White Potato, but there are numerous other popular types of White Potatoes, which are included in this category due to their white flesh, not their skin color, which can and does vary from ivory to deep mahogany:
  • White Rose (also called the Long White or the California Long White): This extremely popular potato features a think, speckled beige skin, white flesh, a nutty flavor, and a moderate starch content. Small Long Whites are generally round, but larger Long Whites are generally more elongated. They generally hold their shape are are great for cutting up and pan frying or sauteing, and for potato salad. They also are fine when boiled or steamed. Again, avoid potatoes that are soft, wrinkled, have cuts in the skin or are green-tinted.
  • Maris Piper: Only recently becoming popular, this white-fleshed potato is more starchy than the White Rose varieties and is probably best fried or used for gratins.
  • Creamer: These are low in starch and feature a velvety texture, and are generally on the small size. Roasting, sauteing (usually with whole potatoes) and even boiling can bring out their namesake “creamy” taste.
  • Irish Cobbler: Most popular in the Eastern US, it generally is found medium-sized and round, with a think skin and dense, dry texture, making it perfect for mashing.
Gold Potatoes: Immensely popular today, they feature yellowish flesh, usually with gold-tinted skin as well.
  • Yukon Gold: A relatively new addition to the world of potatoes, it’s a Canadian import to the US, developed north of the border in the 1980s. Round but slightly elongated, they feature smooth yellow skin and yellow flesh. They are routinely used in place of almost any red or white for frying, sauteing, boiling, steaming, etc. for a wide variety of dishes.
  • Bintje: Immensely popular in Europe, these Dutch imports have a medium starch content and are used for French fries, hash browns, and can be sauteed whole.
  • German Butterball: Similar to the Yukon Gold, it does have a rougher skin and high starch level, and has a buttery flavor.
Potato Ricer

See Selections of Potato Tools

  • Ratte: Today’s version of the aristocrat’s potato, it’s of French origin and a big part of French cooking. American versions are generally smaller than the larger European Ratte, they all are known by their creamy, pale flesh and essence of hazelnut in the flavor. Though used in a variety of ways, they are excellent in as a puree’.
Red Potatoes: Unlike other potatoes categorized by their flesh color, the Red Potato grouping is done by skin color. They are all generally round. As they are usually rushed to market, they are also known as “New” potatoes.
  • Red Bliss: Widely available and extensively used, with its think red skin and ivory white flesh, it’s the classic breed for potato salad and makes even the staunch anti-skin person want to leave this skin on the potato.
  • French Fingerling: It’s a plump, elongated oval-shaped potato with a smooth red skin, light yellowish flesh that is streaked in red, and with a silky texture and rich flavor combined with its medium starch content, it has a wide variety of uses including adding whole to saucy dishes.
  • All Red: Aptly named for its red flesh (well, actually pink flesh) underneath its red skin. it is not the most flavorful of potatoes, but that red color makes it a popular addition to potato salads and more.
Blue and Purple Potatoes are more recent additions to the American diet after generations of popularity in South America. Most, such as the All Blue and the Peruvian Purple, are extremely starchy and thus sweeter than most potatoes, but the skin on these needs to be removed before serving.

Sweet Potatoes and Yams: Sweet Potatoes were also grown in South America, and in the Caribbean, centuries ago, and they actually entered the US as long ago as possibly the 16th century, before the “real” potatoes described above, after some found on the Island of Hispaniola were brought to Spain by Columbus and eventually then to the southern US, also centuries ago. There are no true "yams" grown or commercially marketed in the United States. Products labeled as yams are really sweeter varieties of sweet potato. True yams weigh up to eight pounds, have white to yellow flesh, and are native to Africa.

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