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Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent Paperback – March 29, 2011

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (March 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300171455
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300171457
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #662,845 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

This enjoyably meandering history looks at the potato as a plant of paradox. It has been revered as an aphrodisiac and feared as a cause of leprosy. Populations rise dramatically wherever it is introduced, but reliance on it “ensnares more people in poverty than it lifts out.” Reader traces the evolution of the potato from poisonous Andean weed to global staple, offering adept disquisitions on whatever captures his attention: the mysterious origins of agriculture, the economic history of Peru, the domestic arrangements of the Irish. There are glimpses of the Reign of Terror, when the ornamental gardens of the Tuileries Palace were planted with potatoes, and the Great Potato Boom of 1903 and 1904, when an investment bubble grew as a result of false claims made for a potato strain known as Eldorado. This is a story of invisible systems and unintended consequences, concerned with how the New World transformed the Old.
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"[This] accessible account embraces the latest scholarship and addresses the failings of previous works on the subject. Indeed the book, like the tuber it describes, fills a void: the spud now has the biography it deserves."—Economist


"Reader takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey . . . What we get . . . is a history of the world from the potato's point of view."—Willa Murphy, Irish Times

(Willa Murphy Irish Times)

"John Reader's superb history traces the potato's rise from mistaken identity to the basic food now cultivated in 149 countries."—Robert Collins, Sunday Times
(Robert Collins Sunday Times)

"As a staple of the global diet, the potato is worth this digestible book . . ."—Iain Finlayson, Times

(Iain Finlayson Times)

". . . rarely has this kind of thing been done so well."—Giles Foden, Conde Nast Traveller

(Giles Foden Conde Nast Traveller)

". . . a fascinating tale. You'll never eat a chip with the same indifference again."—Leslie Geddes-Brown, Country Life

(Leslie Geddes-Brown Country Life)

"A riveting new history . . ."—Toby Morison, Sunday Telegraph Stella Supplement
(Toby Morison Sunday Telegraph Stella Supplement)

"A very thorough historical treatment of the tuber."—Billy Heller, New York Post
(Billy Heller New York Post 2009-03-15) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

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If you like social history, botany, culinary information, and are just curious about things around you, you'll enjoy Potato: A History.
Karen McAuley
Blight will inevitably create offspring that can overcome the resistant spud's defenses, and each new blight spore can produce 100,000 spores in four days.
Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust)
Reader cannot be praised enough for his book, which combines history, botany, culture, economics with a smooth and highly readable style.
H. Campbell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Ursiform TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The rather pompous subtitle, "A History of the Propitious Esculent" provides a bit of a warning up front. (It means "favorable edible thing", so you don't have to look it up.) This is not a book that draws you along, or really achieves a sense of story. But if you are interested in potatoes there is interesting information that can be extracted.

The author manages to start the book with Mars, asserting that astronauts will take potatoes with them when they go. He then moves to the Andes, from whence potatoes originate. Ancestral potatoes were toxic, and people in the Andes bred non-toxic varieties. The author discusses this as well as he can, but there is little direct evidence of how it was done. He then launches into a discussion of Andean civilizations and then the fall of the Inca to the Spanish. Acceptably done, but if you want a great account (of this and more) look at "1491" by Charles C. Mann.

The potato then makes its way to Europe, and slowly gains acceptance. (Including tales of fraud and the like.) Then comes Ireland, population explosion, and blight, death, and emigration. The discussion of the blight, how it happened, and what the consequences were is good. There is also much discussion of the politics of the time, and the fight over the Corn Laws ("corn" meaning grain, in the British use), which applied tariffs to keep out cheap foreign grain to protect British farmers. It also helped the Irish starve when the potato crop failed, and thus the blight contributed to ending a long political fight.

[Side note: I ordered the UK edition of this book based on a review in The Economist. The Economist was founded in opposition to the Corn Laws ...]

The story then moves back to the potato in Europe, especially in England.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust) on September 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The wild potato is a masterpiece of evolution. Botanists have discovered 169 species of them, widely dispersed across the Americas, but primarily located in the Andes. Wild spuds have been able to adapt to every type of ecosystem except for lowland tropical rainforest. Their foliage is bitter with toxic glycoalkaloid compounds that promptly spoil the appetite of hungry leaf munchers (or kill them).

Beneath the ground, small tubers grow on the roots, in a wide variety of colors and shapes. The toxic tubers store energy and moisture as insurance against unfavorable conditions. As they mature, the plants flower, and then produce tomato-like fruits containing up to 200 seeds. Because the seeds are the result of sexual reproduction, each one is genetically unique. Some will be resistant to frost, and/or drought, and/or blight. Wherever they happen to grow, plants having the most suitable genes for local conditions will be the most likely to thrive and reproduce. Diverse genes are essential for long-term survival.

Wild spuds are not the slightest bit interested in sprawling agribusiness monocultures, cancerous civilizations, population explosions, fungicide industries, topsoil destruction, or morbid obesity. They simply find ways to blend into their ecosystem, live well, and not rock the boat, like all proper and dignified organisms do.

After consuming several tons of domesticated spuds over many decades, John Reader was inspired to write Potato, a highly readable book that described the amazing success of the humble spud, and the astonishing unintended consequences. It adds one more chapter to the ongoing comedy of backfiring human cleverness.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Henri IV on November 26, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Before I read this book, I knew that potatoes came from South America, that the Spanish brought them to the new world, that there was an Irish potato famine that drove many Irish to emigrate to America, and that french fries and potato chips aren't the healthiest foods. I have grown potatoes in my garden, so I know that there are different varieties to choose from, different sizes, shapes, colors, cooking qualities, tastes, and ripening times, and that one should not plant them in the same place repeatedly, although I've never had a problem, and they come up in the same place on their own the next year anyway. I knew about the role M. Parmentier played in popularizing the potato in France, and about the French potato dishes that bear his name today. But as for all the rest of the history of the potato...I had absolutely no idea. I found this book absolutely fascinating. We so take the potato for granted, that big bulging brown thing that we bake or mash or fry, or the red "new potato" that we boil and use for more delicate purposes. (The French have access to and enjoy a much wider range of nuanced varieties.) I did not realize the impact the potato has had on various societies, its importance all over the world, its development as a useful, modern crop, and the huge volume of potatoes grown today. I had no idea that the Chinese grew potatoes, as potatoes don't appear on Chinese restaurant menus. I had no idea of the extensive efforts to breed useful varieties, and to find solutions to the late blight that caused the Irish famine. I had never thought about wild potatoes and their characteristics. The more one learns about something, the more interesting it becomes. This book has given me tremendous respect for the potato and for all of the people that have contributed to making it the tuber we know and love today. Super book.
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