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Highly Unpopular at First

It is hard to believe now, but the potato was once a highly unpopular food. When first introduced into England by Sir Walter Raleigh, newspapers printed editorials against it, ministers preached sermons against it, and the general public wouldn’t touch it. It was supposed to sterilize the soil in which it had been planted and cause all manner of strange illnesses—even death.

There were, however, a few brave men who did not believe all the propaganda being shouted against it. It was seen as an answer to famine among the poorer classes and as a healthful and beneficial food. Still, these few noblemen in England could not persuade their tenants to cultivate the potato. It was years before all the adverse publicity was overcome and the potato became popular.

A Frenchman named Parmentier took a different tack. He had been a prisoner of war in England when he first heard of the new plant. His fellow prisoners protested the outrage of having to eat potatoes. Parmentier, instead, thoughtfully inquired about the methods of cultivating and cooking the new food.

Upon his return to France, he procured an experimental farm from the Emperor, in which he planted potatoes. When it was time to dig them, at his own expense, he hired a few soldiers to patrol all sides of his famous potato patch during the daytime. Meanwhile he conducted distinguished guests through the fields, digging a few tubers here and there, which they devoured with evident relish.

At night, he began to withdraw the guards. A few days later one of the guards hastened to Parmentier with the sad news that peasants had broken into the potato patch at night, and dug up most of the crop.

Parmentier was overjoyed, much to the surprise of his informant, and exclaimed, “When the people will steal in order to procure potatoes, their popularity is assured.”

Bits & Pieces, January 9, 1992, pp. 13, 14, 15