Synopses & Reviews
The potato -- humble, lumpy, bland, familiar -- is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Readers narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber. From domestication in Peru 8,000 years ago to its status today as the worlds fourth largest food crop, the potato has played a starring—or at least supporting -- role in many chapters of human history. In this witty and engaging book, Reader opens our eyes to the power of the potato.
Whether embraced as the solution to hunger or wielded as a weapon of exploitation, blamed for famine and death or recognized for spurring progress, the potato has often changed the course of human events. Reader focuses on sixteenth-century South America, where the indigenous potato enabled Spanish conquerors to feed thousands of conscripted native people; eighteenth-century Europe, where the nutrition-packed potato brought about a population explosion; and today's global world, where the potato is an essential food source but also the worlds most chemically-dependent crop. Where potatoes have been adopted as a staple food, social change has always followed. It may be “just” a humble vegetable, John Reader shows, yet the history of the potato has been anything but dull.
"There is no more tragic vegetable than the potato. Originating in the Peruvian Andes, it was first domesticated by the Quechua-speaking peoples, who could not help but become reliant on a highly nutritional foodstuff that could be grown in large quantities on small plots in regions inhospitable to grains. John Reader, in his ambling new history of the 'propitious esculent,' calls the potato the 'best all-around bundle of nutrition known.' Without any help from other products, it can provide a 'filling, wholesome and nourishing meal.' But the 'innocent' potato, Reader admits, 'has facilitated exploitation.' It enabled the Quechua to maintain strong bodies while suffering the deprecations of the Incas (and their system of forced labor). The Incas were followed by Spanish colonizers and then by Spanish and Peruvian hacienda owners, whose 'feudal stranglehold on agriculture and farm labor' remained in place until just a few decades ago." Peter Duffy, The New Republic
(Read the entire New Republic review
About the Author
John Reader is a writer and photojournalist who holds an honorary research fellowship in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. He lives in Surrey, UK.