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Top 10 Potato Books


The Guardian has gone nuts over potatoes. Here is their list of the top 10 books about the spuds:

1. History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redcliffe Salaman
Initially published by in 1949, but reissued in 1985, Salaman’s book has to be first choice. He was nothing if not unrelenting in the breadth of his research, firing off letters to any institution or individual who might add something (or anything) to his study. The result is a deep and thorough book that amazes (in its detail) and exasperates (in its poor structural organisation) by turn. Indispensable.

2. The Flounder by Gunter Grass
Food is a principal feature of this book, giving a wonderful sense of immediacy to its lateral approach and presentation of European social history. As Grass puts it: “Amanda’s potato peelings are the winding road to do-you-still-remember, late memories of my umbilical cord, which, uncoiled, leads to her as she sits at her kitchen table. Her potato knife knew how the story would go on.” And thus begins a compelling fictional take on the introduction of potatoes as a food for the masses in late 18th-century Europe.

3. Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
The potato famine that struck Ireland in the 1840s was the greatest social catastrophe of 19th-century Europe – a consequence of the potato’s exceptional nutritional attributes, exacerbated by political and economic inequities that had left most of the Irish with nothing else to eat, and executed by a disease, Late Blight, that totally destroyed the country’s potato crop. In Star of the Sea, O’Connor’s writes eloquently, heart-wrenchingly, of a disaster and its aftermath that were God’s way, some said, “of converting Connemara peasants into Boston politicians”.

4. The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-Smith
Published in 1962, The Great Hunger was the first account of the Irish famine written by a British historian. I read it while living in Connemara for 18 months in the mid-60s and emerged from its pages with a hefty load of referred guilt. The book is an unsparing indictment of the British government’s Irish policy and reaction – sometimes overstated, but a classic account of the accumulating factors that made the potato famine a catastrophe waiting to happen.

5. Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920, by LA Clarkson and E Margaret Crawford
A more dispassionate account of the circumstances preceding, during and after the famine – more concerned with the actualities of nutrition, population growth and collapse that the potato brought to Ireland, than with apportioning blame. Academic, but in the best sense – i.e. authoritative and very readable.

6. The Potato by WG Burton
For a thorough discourse on why the potato is such a wonderful bundle of nutrition, and much else besides relating to its history, production and processing, this is the book to look for ­– supplemented, I suggest, by …

7. The Potato: Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources by JG Hawkes
Hawkes was a leading figure in 20th-century potato research whose memoir of the British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America 1938-1939 …

8. Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes by JG Hawkes
… is highly entertaining. This was an expedition that smoothed the rough corners of his personality, Hawkes writes, and laid the groundwork for a career that spanned six decades. An unusual insight into the making of a scientist.

9. England’s Happiness Increased, or, A sure and easy remedy against all succeeding dear years; by a plantation of the roots called POTATOES by John Forster
A rare work (but available as a reprint via the internet) this was originally published in 1664 (just a few decades after the potato’s introduction to Europe) “for the good of the poorer sort”. Forster’s tract at first seems an honourable attempt to popularise potatoes for the benefit of those in need. Closer reading, however, reveals an economic motive: a royal monopoly would earn the king up to £50,000 in licence fees, Forster writes, somewhat ingratiatingly. As Salaman observed, “the potato can, and generally does, play a twofold part: that of a nutritious food, and that of a weapon ready forged for the exploitation of a weaker group in a mixed society.”

10. Potato Cookbooks – Take your pick
Every one has recipes for the potato, and there are several which deal with nothing else. But frankly, I can’t get excited enough about them to recommend any in particular. The best potato recipe is the one that suits the occasion. Freshly dug earlies that you’ve grown yourself are hard to beat – simply boiled, buttered and sprinkled with chopped parsley. Or, at the other extreme, try Truman Capote’s recommendation: baked, smothered with sour cream, heaped with the freshest, biggest-grained Beluga caviar, and washed down with 80-proof Russian vodka.

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