During the Seven Years’ War in the middle of the 18th century, a French army pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussian soldiers. As a prisoner of war, he was forced to live on potato rations. In the mid-18th century in France, this would practically be considered a cruel and unusual punishment: potatoes were viewed as fodder for cattle and were believed to cause leprosy in humans. The fear was so widespread that the French passed a law against them in 1748.
But as Parmentier found out in prison, potatoes weren’t fatal. In fact, they were pretty tasty. After his release at the end of the war, the pharmacist began to show his compatriots the wonders of the tuber. One way to do this was to demonstrate all of the delicious ways it could be served, including pureed. By 1
The history of mashed potatoes spans 10,000 years and traverses the mountains of Peru and the Irish countryside. It features cameos from Thomas Jefferson and a food scientist who helped invent an ubiquitous snack. But before we get to them, let’s go back to the beginning.
The origins of the potato
Potatoes don’t come from Ireland – or anywhere in Europe. They were most likely domesticated in the Andes of Peru and northwestern Bolivia, where they were at least 8000 BC. Were used for food.
These early potatoes were very different from the potatoes we know today. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes and had a bitter taste that no amount of cooking could get rid of. They were also slightly poisonous. To combat this toxicity, the llama’s wild relatives licked clay before eating it. The toxins in the potatoes would stick to the clay particles so that the animals could safely consume them. The people of the Andes noticed this and began to dip their potatoes in a mixture of clay and water – perhaps not the most appetizing sauce, but a brilliant solution to their potato problem. Even today, when most potato varieties are selectively grown to be safe to eat, some poisonous varieties can still be bought in the Andean markets, where they are sold alongside digestive clay dust.
When Spanish explorers brought the first potatoes to Europe from South America in the 16th century, they had been grown into a fully edible plant. However, it took a while for them to gain acceptance overseas. According to some reports, European farmers were suspicious of plants that were not mentioned in the Bible. others say it was the fact that potatoes grow from tubers rather than seeds.
Modern potato historians, however, discuss these points. Omitting cabbage from the Bible did not seem to detract from its popularity, and at the same time tulip was grown, using onions instead of seeds. It could just have been a horticultural problem. The South American climate where potatoes thrived was different than Europe, especially in terms of the hours of daylight in a day. In Europe, potatoes grew leaves and flowers, which botanists easily studied, but the tubers they produced remained small even after months of growth. This particular problem was resolved when the Spaniards grew potatoes in the Canary Islands, which acted as a kind of middle ground between equatorial South America and northern European climes.
It should be noted, however, that there is some evidence of the aforementioned cultural concerns. There are clear indications of people in the Scottish Highlands dislike that potatoes were not mentioned in the Bible, and customs such as planting potatoes on Good Friday and sometimes sprinkling them with holy water suggest a close relationship with potato consumption. They became more common, but not without controversy. Over time, concerns about potatoes causing leprosy severely damaged their reputation.
Early mashed potatoes recipes
A handful of potato lawyers, including Parmentier, were able to reverse the image of the potato. In her recipe book from the 18th century The art of cookingThe English author Hannah Glasse instructed readers to boil potatoes, peel them, put them in a saucepan and mash them well with milk, butter and a little salt. In the United States, Mary Randolph published a recipe for mashed potatoes in her book: The Virginia housewifethat required half an ounce of butter and a tablespoon of milk for a pound of potatoes.
But no country has embraced the potato like Ireland. The robust, nutritious food seemed tailored for the island’s harsh winters. And wars between England and Ireland have probably hastened their adjustment there; Since the important part grows underground, it had a better chance of surviving military activity. The Irish also liked mashed potatoes, often with cabbage or kale in a dish known as colcannon. Potatoes were more than just a staple there. They became part of Irish identity.
But the miracle harvest had one big flaw: it is prone to disease, especially to late blight or potato Phytophtora infestans. When the microorganism invaded Ireland in the 1840s, farmers lost their livelihoods and many families lost their primary source of food. The Irish famine killed a million people, or one eighth of the country’s population. For its part, the British government offered little assistance to its Irish subjects.
An unexpected legacy of the famine was an explosion in agricultural science. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the problem of potato rot on a humanitarian and scientific level. He has even personally funded a potato breeding program in Ireland. His endeavor was just one of many. With potatoes that had survived the epidemic and the new South American population, European farmers were finally able to breed healthy, resilient varieties of potatoes and increase the harvest volumes again. This development spurred more research into plant genetics and was part of a broader scientific movement that included Gregor Mendel’s pioneering work with garden peas.
Tools of the mashed potatoes trade
At the beginning of the 20th century, a tool called the Ricer appeared in household kitchens. It’s a metal device that resembles an oversized garlic press and has nothing to do with making rice. When cooked potatoes are pressed through the tiny holes in the bottom of the press, they turn into fine, rice-sized pieces.
The process is much less cumbersome than using an old fashioned tamper and produces more appetizing results. If you let your potatoes be forgotten, gelatinized starches are released from the plant cells, which together form a paste-like consistency. If you’ve ever tried “sticky” mashed potatoes, mashing over was probably the culprit. With a rice machine, you don’t have to abuse your potatoes to get a smooth, lump-free texture. Some purists argue that mashed potatoes made this way aren’t actually mashed at all – they’re ripe – but let’s not allow pedantry to get in the way of delicious carbohydrates.
The evolution of the mashed potatoes
If mashed potatoes pedants have opinions about rice machines, they will definitely have something to say about this next evolution. In the 1950s, researchers at what is now the Eastern Regional Research Center, a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility outside of Philadelphia, developed a new method of dehydrating potatoes that resulted in potato flakes that could be quickly rehydrated at home. Soon after, modern mashed potatoes were born.
It’s worth noting that this was far from the first time potatoes have been dehydrated. At least from the time of the Incas, Chuño is essentially a freeze-dried potato made through a combination of manual labor and environmental conditions. The Incas gave it to soldiers and protected it from a lack of crops.
In the late 1700s, experiments were carried out with industrial drying. A 1802 letter to Thomas Jefferson discussed a new invention where you grated the potato and squeezed out any juices and the resulting cake could be kept for years. When rehydrated, it was “like mashed potatoes,” according to the letter. Unfortunately, the potatoes tended to turn into purple, astringent tasting cakes.
Interest in mashed potatoes increased again during World War II, but these versions were a soggy mush or lasted forever. It was only with the innovations of the ERRC in the 1950s that tasty dried mashed potatoes could be produced. One of the most important developments was to find a way to dry the cooked potatoes much faster, thereby minimizing the amount of cell breakage and thus the patties of the end product. These potato flakes fit perfectly with the rise of so-called convenience products at the time and, after a decline in previous years, contributed to a recovery in potato consumption in the 1960s.
Instant mashed potatoes are a miracle of food science, but they’re not the only use scientists have found for these new potato flakes. Miles Willard, one of the ERRC researchers, went on to work in the private sector, where his work helped contribute to new types of snacks with reconstituted potato flakes – including pringles.