Rivka Galchen is an award-winning writer based in New York and whose fiction appears regularly in the New Yorker and Harper’s. She is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances (2008) and the short-story collection American Innovations (2014). Her latest book Little Labors, which appeared in the Tank Summer Reader, was published this year, and is an intriguing miscellany of writings on the theme of motherhood and the position of babies in the literary canon. For this issue it made sense to ask Galchen, who has a background in medicine as well as a highly distinctive genre-defying style, to compose a series of musings on the health benefits and sociocultural positioning of the potato.
1. Home Fries
My brother and I helped my mother almost never. We didn’t make our beds; we didn’t pack our lunches; we didn’t put away our shoes; we didn’t set the table (not that the table was ever set at our house); we didn’t yield the television.
But we did slice the potatoes for French fries. After our repeated complaints that the fries weren’t thin enough failed to lead to thinner fries, we finally found a matter important enough to take into our own hands.
2. The Potato Clock
Scientists have looked into the efficiency of powering LED lights and laptops and phones via potato batteries; almost every American child knows about potato batteries; those old elementary school experiments are where the scientists got the idea to look into the potato power question more seriously; and when the potato as battery was formally looked into, the results were promising: potatoes could provide battery energy at 1/50th of the current price. The scientists felt confident the potato battery, now more fully understood, would catch on, would be of use, especially as a source of energy for the billions of people living in poverty. But the potato battery didn’t catch on. There are several theories as to why. One theory was that it was important that the potato as battery market not interfere with the potato as food market. Another was that the potato as battery market not interfere with the potato as a cash crop for farmers. But these theories seem to offer insufficient explanatory power. Another theory is that energy purchasing – whether for conventional batteries or for solar power – is not just about purchasing light and electricity, but also about purchasing status. And the potato has no status.
In Peru, the home of the potato, I came to learn that “papas fritas” translates into fried potatoes, and “Papas Fritas” into Fried Popes. This makes a certain sense. It seems relevant that I have never in my life met a single person who dislikes papas fritas, though I have met many people who will not eat them.
4. In an Election Year
The potato is not what I thought it was. Because potatoes generally have near enough to no colour, and are not bitter, sweet or sour, I assumed they had little to no nutritional value. But this is not the case. Potatoes have an impressive nutritional profile, they are a major element of food security. Most varieties are high in vitamin B6, potassium, copper, vitamin C and manganese, to name just a few. And whereas it takes 10 acres of wheat to feed ten people, it takes only 1 acre of potatoes to do the same. It’s not that potatoes are as dreamy a food as raspberries, pistachios and spinach – but they are so much more dignified and important than I had thought. A certain stateliness was there, always, unnoticed in the mute potato.
5. Fancy Foods
In Ireland, the potato was a fancy food from the start. Sir Walter Raleigh brought potatoes to Ireland, and cultivated them on his estate not far from Cork. When he hosted a dinner for the queen, he served her potatoes. But he forgot to tell the cooks how to prepare potatoes, and the cooks didn’t know that it was the root of the exotic vegetable, and not the greens, that was meant to be eaten. So the greens were served, and the feast attendees became ill. Still, the potato caught on. Among the elite, and, eventually, among the commoners. Some argue that the Irish population explosion was due to the potato crop’s ability to support an unprecedented number of people. Yet somehow, as a child I thought the Irish Potato Famine meant the Irish had nothing to eat but potatoes; I didn’t understand that the famine was because they no longer had enough potatoes, because there was a potato blight, and that because there was so little genetic diversity in the potato crop the blight knocked out a large proportion of it.
And as an adult, I thought the famous Lenape potato was a simple parable about genetically engineered crops. The Lenape was a potato bred to produce an especially delicious and ideally textured potato chip; the chips were great! But when a Canadian potato expert prepared some Lenape for himself, he didn’t feel well; he recognised the potatoes had given him a mild case of glycoalkaloid poisoning, glycoalkaloids being a potato’s natural poison, and the Lenape, unknown until the Canadian intervened, had unusually high levels of glycoalkaloids. But the Lenape was not genetically engineered, it was bred in the traditional ways. Nevertheless, it became a common theme in arguments against genetic engineering. Whether or not that was an election year phenomenon, I don’t know.
6. The French
From before and even through and beyond the Renaissance, the French – to the extent that we can summarise them through this time as the French – disdained the potato. Potatoes could be fed to hogs, maybe to cattle, but for humans to eat them was an indignity, and furthermore potatoes caused, it was thought, syphilis, leprosy, sterility and early death. For a number of years, it was forbidden, under pain of fine, even to cultivate them.
But in the mid-18th century, during the Seven Years War, a French army pharmacist was a prisoner of war in Prussia; during that time, he survived on a diet of potatoes. When a contest was held, years after his return, to propose a diet to counter dysentery, the pharmacist proposed a diet of potatoes. Potatoes won! Not long after they gained official recognition as food. They remained unpopular, however. The pharmacist tried to change that. In 1767, he threw an all-potato feast for the king; at the feast, the queen wore a potato-blossom headdress. In 1785, the same pharmacist convinced Louis XVI to give over 100 acres outside of Paris to grow potatoes. The pharmacist had the acres heavily guarded, so that they would seem valuable. Then, as per his plan, he let the guards off duty for an evening, and the potato plants were, predictably, stolen and re-cultivated by the masses.
Even if French fries aren’t really French – most people credit the Belgians, and the “French” part of the name is thought to be derived from the style of slicing – it remains the case that many of the tastiest methods of potato preparation are French.
7. In Profile
For a time it seemed that every profile of a model or beautiful actress included a requisite scene in which the model or actress, sharing a meal with the interviewer, would order French fries, and talk about how much she loved French fries. It’s unsettling to recognise that I have read enough actress and model profiles to have noticed this. §