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

4.5 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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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.

Review

"[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

(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.
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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: 6 x 0.8 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #433,009 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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I guess I bought this because it was published by Yale Press, expecting a "scholarly" treatment and a serious book about the potato in history. It is not. The author is a professional pop science writer and that is what you get. But it is well done by the standards of the genre.
It is a well written, often interesting, set of disconnected anecdotes and stories about all things potato. It begins with the origins in the Andes, spends a good bit of time on the Irish, and ends with pommes frites in China. There is a little bit on botany, a little bit of plant pathology, quite a lot on nasty Spaniards and Brits, and lots more. Was I bored? No. Did I have a sense that I had wasted my time. YES. Am I disappointed with Yale Press? You bet!
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Most of my consulting clients are food companies. When I took on project management for an Idaho based food company I wanted to get smart on tubers. After reading the aptly named Reader's book I was not only smarter but highly entertained. This is a delightful book that puts the last 10,000 years of human history into perspective. I think the best part was Reader starting the book with the NASA research on sustaining life in space following a potato diet before Matt Damon figured it out in the Martian film.

Reader takes us to colonial South America where we see early growers, agronomists, and scoundrels in action. Then potatoes come to Europe. Eventually they take over since they provide four times the calories per acre and are less likely to be disturbed by the marauding armies so prevalent in war-torn 18th century Europe. The impact of potatoes on social history is clear as the cheap calories swell the Irish population. Potatoes eventually go bad briefly in the 19th century leading to the Irish migration and the modernization of the English economy. And now today we have research under way on GM potatoes driven by claims of reducing potentially carcinogenic component levels.
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