How Potatoes Conquered the World

It took centuries for the spud to travel from the New World to the Old and back again

For the Wall Street Journal

At the first Thanksgiving dinner, eaten by the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims in 1621, the menu was rather different from what’s served today. For one thing, the pumpkin was roasted, not made into a pie. And there definitely wasn’t a side dish of mashed potatoes.

In fact, the first hundred Thanksgivings were spud-free, since potatoes weren’t grown in North America until 1719, when Scotch-Irish settlers began planting them in New Hampshire. Mashed potatoes were an even later invention. The first recorded recipe for the dish appeared in 1747, in Hannah Glasse’s splendidly titled “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind yet Published.”

By then, the potato had been known in Europe for a full two centuries. It was first introduced by the Spanish conquerors of Peru, where the Incas had revered the potato and even invented a natural way of freeze-drying it for storage. Nevertheless, despite its nutritional value and ease of growing, the potato didn’t catch on in Europe. It wasn’t merely foreign and ugly-looking; to wheat-growing farmers it seemed unnatural—possibly even un-Christian, since there is no mention of the potato in the Bible. Outside of Spain, it was generally grown for animal feed.

The change in the potato’s fortunes was largely due to the efforts of a Frenchman named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813). During the Seven Years’ War, he was taken prisoner by the Prussians and forced to live on a diet of potatoes. To his surprise, he stayed relatively healthy. Convinced he had found a solution to famine, Parmentier dedicated his life after the war to popularizing the potato’s nutritional benefits. He even persuaded Marie-Antoinette to wear potato flowers in her hair.

Among the converts to his message were the economist Adam Smith, who realized the potato’s economic potential as a staple food for workers, and Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. Ambassador to France, who was keen for his new nation to eat well in all senses of the word. Jefferson is credited with introducing Americans to french fries at a White House dinner in 1802.

As Smith predicted, the potato became the fuel for the Industrial Revolution. A study published in 2011 by Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian in the Quarterly Journal of Economics estimates that up to a quarter of the world’s population growth from 1700 to 1900 can be attributed solely to the introduction of the potato. As Louisa May Alcott observed in “Little Men,” in 1871, “Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes.”

In 1887, two Americans, Jacob Fitzgerald and William H. Silver, patented the first potato ricer, which forced a cooked potato through a cast iron sieve, ending the scourge of lumpy mash. Still, the holy grail of “quick and easy” mashed potatoes remained elusive until the late 1950s. Using the flakes produced by the potato ricer and a new freeze drying method, U.S. government scientists perfected instant mashed potatoes, which only requires the simple step of adding hot water or milk to the mix. The days of peeling, boiling and mashing were now optional, and for millions of cooks, Thanksgiving became a little easier. And that’s something to be thankful for.

 

WSJ Historically Speaking: Short but Tasty History of Pumpkin Pie

An odyssey from colonial staple to political emblem to holiday standby

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Pumpkin pie may not compete with its apple-filled rival for most of the year, but on Thanksgiving, it’s the iconic dessert, despite often resembling a giant helping of baby food. As a slice of Americana, the pie has a history as complicated as the country itself.

The pumpkin’s ancestors were ancient gourds that left Asia some 60 million years ago. Known botanically as Cucurbitaceae, the plant family slowly spread to the African, Australian and American continents, laying down roots (and vines) to become such familiar garden goodies as the melon, the cucumber and the squash.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Much Ado About Stuffing: A History

For a festival that celebrates amity, thankfulness and American values, Thanksgiving generates a lot of arguments, perhaps none more contentious than the issue of stuffing.

The disputes begin with the name, because some people refer to stuffing as “dressing.” Also, some insist that stuffing is only stuffing if it’s from inside the bird, while others can only abide cooking it separately and serving it as a side dish. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: How America’s Writers Loved and Hated Thanksgiving

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Despite its young age—a mere 152 years—Thanksgiving has deep roots in the American psyche. It was already popular when President Lincoln first established the holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November. In 1842, two decades before Lincoln’s decree, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared Thanksgiving Day “a good old festival; and my wife and I have kept it with our hearts, and besides have made good cheer upon our turkey, and pudding, and pies, and custards.”

The bliss of home life combined with the culinary delights of turkey, pudding and pies also featured in the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (“The Old New England Thanksgiving”) and Louisa May Alcott (“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving”). Such paeans were in perfect accord with the original intentions behind the holiday. Sarah Hale, the journalist who led the campaign to have Thanksgiving accorded federal status, wrote in 1868: “The enjoyments are social, the feastings are domestic, therefore this annual festival is really the exponent of family happiness and household piety. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: How the Turkey Became the Thanksgiving Bird

Photo: WARNER BROS. TELEVISION/EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: WARNER BROS. TELEVISION/EVERETT COLLECTION

This Thanksgiving, let’s spare a thought for the roughly 40 million turkeys whose destiny is inextricably linked to the fourth Thursday in November.

As a symbol of national pride and family values, the humble turkey has few rivals. But how did it edge out the competition to become the quintessential Thanksgiving dish?

Success was neither immediate nor assured. It isn’t clear whether turkey made it onto the menu at the original 1621 harvest-celebration meal shared among the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Wild turkeys were plentiful; the colonist leader William Bradford noted in his diary that “there was a great store” of them. But the only surviving letter about that meal refers to four men who went “a-fowling,” which could have meant anything from ducks to swans.

The tradition of Congress issuing a national Thanksgiving proclamation began in 1777, at around the same time that the Great Seal of the U.S. was being designed, and the turkey wasn’t a serious contender to be the symbol of America. The birds considered included the rooster, the dove and the eagle. In the end, the Great Seal committee accepted Charles Thomson’s 1782 suggestion of the bald eagle.

But two years later, Benjamin Franklin found himself wondering whether they had made a mistake: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly…he is generally poor and often very lousy.” By contrast, Franklin wrote, the turkey was a “much more respectable bird…though a little vain and silly, a Bird of courage.”

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