Larry Zuckerman

A Taste of "The Potato"

For most French people, meat meant bits of salt pork that reached the table perhaps only once a week. Bread reigned, in fact and in spirit, as many proverbs attest. Children who wasted anything were told that they didn't "know how the bread comes." Another saying went that youth gave you teeth but no bread, while old age gave you bread but no teeth. And good teeth were vital, because peasant bread wasn't the moist delicacy that today's specialty bakeries offer so proudly. . . . Many houses lacked ovens, which meant using communal ones. That, and the scarcity of fuel and labor, made baking a rare event. In good times, it happened every few weeks; in bad, once or twice a year.
--from Chapter 4, Vive la pomme de terre

The Game Code forbade anyone to harvest or kill anything wild without the landowner's consent, and the war between poachers and gamekeepers was legendary. Critics wondered how Parliament could let rabbits and birds eat grass, and foxes steal chickens, while making anyone who harmed the pests an outlaw. Though the code acted primarily to keep milord's hunting sufficiently diverting, it also protected his woodlands.
--from Chapter 6, He Would Rather Be Hanged

Desperate, too, were the people jamming Ireland's main roads. Elizabeth Smith saw them and told her diary, "God help the people; the roads are beset with tattered skeletons that give one a shudder to look at, for how can we feed or clothe so many." Ireland's rootless included would-be emigrants, the dispossessed seeking a place to settle undisturbed, those fleeing plagues, those hoping the workhouse in the next town would take them, others just looking for a place to die. Shopkeepers were sometimes afraid to open their doors in the morning, for fear they would find corpses lying against them.
--from Chapter 9, The Lumpers They Were Black

The American passion for bread, meat, and butter fat, washed down with coffee and tea, all likely consumed in haste, led to "dyspepsia," how the nineteenth century termed indigestion. The Beecher sisters wrote that the country was "proverbial" for a "gross and luxuriant diet," and that the nation's health would improve if people traded meat for modest helpings of fruit, vegetables, bread, and milk. They quoted a doctor who said that "for every reeling drunkard that disgraces our country, it contains one hundred gluttons." From daughters of a famous temperance lecturer, these were no idle words.
--from Chapter 11, Women's Work

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Winner of the André Simon Special Commendation Award, 2000

The potato: a labor-saver, a fast food, a budget stretcher, a loan bank, a delicacy, a hedge against famine--and a crucial ingredient in the social changes that swept through Europe and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
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