The Potato Museum

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"If We Praise the Potato, We Praise Ourselves" by John Stewart Collis

"I am anxious to say a word about the potato.  But will the Muse fail me?  We sing the flower, we sing the leaf: we seldom sing the seed, the root, the tuber.  Indeed  the potato enters literature with no very marked success.  True, William Cobbett abused it, and Lord Byron made it interesting by rhyming it with Plato; but for the most part it enters politics more easily and has done more to divide England from Ireland then Cromwell himself.


"Yet if we praise the potato we praise ourselves, for it is an extreme example  of artificiality.  "The Earth, in order that she might urge us to labor, the supreme law of life," says Fabre, "has been  but a harsh stepmother.  For the nestling bird she provides abundant foods; to us she offers only the fruit of the Bramble and the Blackthorn."  Not everyone realizes this, he said.  Some people even imagine that the grape is today just like that from which Noah obtained the juice that made him drunk; that the cauliflower, merely with the idea of being pleasant, has of its own accord devolved its creamy-whitehead; that turnips and carrots, being keenly interested in human affairs, have always of their own motion done their best for man; and that the potato, since the world was young, wishing to please us has gone through its curious performance.  The truth is far otherwise.  They were all uneatable at first: it is we who have forced them to become what they are now.  "In its native countries," says Fabre, "on the mountains of Chile and Peru, the potato, in its wild state, is a meager tubercle, about the size of a hazel nut.  Man extends the hospitality of his garden to this sorry weed; he plants it in nurishing soil, tends it, waters it, and makes it fruitful with the sweat of his brow.  And there from year to year, the potato thrives and prospers; it gains in size and nurturing properties, finally becoming a farinaceous tuber the size of our two fists."


"During my first year in the agricultural world I decided to have a good look at the potato and carefully watch its operations.  I had never done this before.  In fact I had little idea how potatoes actually arrive.  With me it is always a question of either knowing a thing or not knowing it, of knowing it from A to Z or not at all; the man who knows a little about everything, from A to B, is incomprehensible to me.  Thus I could approach the potato with a clear head of ignorance.


"I took one in my hand and offered at my attention.  It looks like a smooth stone; a shapeless shape; so dull in appearance that I found it hard to look at it without thinking of something else.  I took a knife and cut it in two.  It had white flesh extremely like an Apple.  But it had nothing in the middle, no seed box, no seeds.  How then can it produce more of itself?  Well, the season had now come, to put it down into the earth.  So implanted them into the prepared field, at a distance of one foot from each other--plenty of space in which laboratory they could carry out any work they desired.


In about a fortnight's time I decided to dig up one and see if anything had happened.  The first I came to had not changed in appearance at all.  From the second, however, two white objects about the length of a worm were protruding.  On human face, I reflected, such protuberances would have seemed like some dreadful disease. One of them looked like a little white mouse trying to get out.  I covered up these phenomena again and left onto a wondering what they would do next.


After a few weeks I  again visited this earthly laboratory to see how things were getting on.  I found that the protuberances had become much  longer and  curled around at their ends--now white snakes coming out of the humble solid.  They had curly heads like purplish  knots, and some of these knots had half opened into a series of green ears.  And now there was another addition: at the place where the stems,  as we may now call them, came out of the potato, a network had been set up, of strings as it were, connecting the outfit with the soil. These, the roots, went downwards seeking the darkness of the earth, while every stem rose up to seek the lights.  But as yet there was no indication where or how new potatoes could appear.


During these early weeks the surface of the field showed no sign that anything was going on underneath.  Later the whole brown surface began to change into rows of green--the light-seeking stalks had risen into the air and unfurled their leaves.  As the weeks passed, and the months, these little green bushes grew in size and complexity until  late July they were all flowering--and a very pretty field it  then looked.  As all flowers have fruit, so had these--potato fruits, of course.  But not the ones we eat.


Even after the green rows had appeared above-board and I made a further examination below I still did not see where the crop of potatoes was going to come from.  Eventually the problem cleared itself up.  I found them forming at the end of the network of roots.  A few of the roots began to swell at their extremity--first about the size of a bird's day, then a baby’s shoe, getting larger and larger until some of them were four times the size of the original potato planted in the ground.  And here we come to the curious thing about potatoes.  The substance which grows at the end of the roots is not itself the roots.  It is a branch.  It is not a root, the botanists say, because roots do not bear buds and do not bear leaves, while this, the potato, does have buds and does have leaves (in the shape of scales).  It is a subterranean branch, swollen and misshapen, storing up food for its buds; and botanists, no longer having the courage to call it a branch, call it tuber.  So when we plant a  potato we are not planting is seed, we're not planting a root; we're planting a branch from whose gateways, called “eyes” , roots reach down and stalks reach up.


To complete the circle, what happens to the original potato?  It conforms to the rule of eternal return by virtue of which the invisible becomes visible, and the visible takes on invisibility.  It darkens, it softens, it becomes a squashy  brown mash, and finally is seen no more.  I used to enjoy taking it up in my hand when I saw it lying on the ground looking like an old leather purse.  It had performed a remarkable act.  Now its work was done.  All the virtue had gone out of it.  It had given life to the green stalks above and the tubers below.  Here I seem to see a familiar sight in nature; many things coming from one thing, much from little, even something out of nothing.  This is what we seem to see.  Yet it is not so.  True, the original potato started the business going, sending down those roots and  sending up those stalks; but they in their turn built  the building.  The earth is not a solid; it is chiefly gas.  The air is not thin; it is massed with food.  Those roots sucked gases from the earth, those leaves sucked gases from the sky, and the result was the visible, hard, concrete potato.  When we eat a potato we eat the earth, and we eat the sky.  It is the law of nature that all things, are all things. That which does not appear to exist today he is tomorrow hewn  down and cast into the oven.  Nature carries on by taking in her own washing.  That is Nature’s economy, contrary to political economy; so that he who cries "Wolf! Wolf!"  is numbered amongst the infidels.  "A mouse," said Walt Whitman, "is enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."  Or a potato.  What is an infidel?  One who lacks faith.  What creates faith?  A miracle.  How then can there be a faithless man found in the world?  Because many men have cut off the nervous communication between the eye and the brain.  In the madness of blindness they are at the mercy of intellectual nay-sayers, theorists, theologians, and other enemies of God.  But it doesn't matter; in spite of them, face is reborn whenever anyone chooses to take a good look that anything--even a potato."


 From The Worm Forgives the Plough, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 1973.



Did You Know?

“The potato is the world’s greatest plant.”—W.F. Wright


You could once buy a ticket to the movies with a potato.


“The potato alone will sustain life in full vigor.”—S. Copeland


An American soldier was once court-martialed for destroying government property by peeling potatoes too thickly.


“One never tires of the non-aggressive flavor of the potato.”—Andre Simon


Potatoes made possible the first color photography.


“It has proved one of the greatest blessings bestowed on mankind by the creator.”

--Noah Webster



“If a man really likes potatoes, he must be a decent sort of fellow.”—A.A. Milne


A patent exists for making artificial flowers out of potatoes.


“There is no species of human food that can be consumed in a greater variety of modes than the potato.”—Sir John Sinclair


Potatoes are fed to severely malnourished infants when they can absorb nothing else.


“Let the sky rain potatoes.”—William Shakespeare


The Potato Bowl is an annual football classic played in Bakersfield, California.


“Human nature will not flourish anymore than the potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne


The Colorado potato beetle was once a bone of contention during the Cold War.


“Faith is reborn whenever anyone chooses to take a gook look at a potato.”—J.S. Collis


Potatoes are used in oil well drilling, the making of penicillin and for hundreds of other industrial applications.


“We eat potatoes at every meal, beginning with breakfast.  In the evening we always have potatoes with gravy.”—Anne Frank


A French encyclopedia once defined “potato” as a “weapon against famine.


“Only potatoes mattered to me, they were worth their weight in gold.  Dinner time should have been called “potato time.”  I remember my mother trudging off in the snow to bring back a few pounds of potatoes on which we were to live for a week.”

--Rudolf Nureyev


The American born Benjamin Thompson, (Count Rumford), introduced potatoes to Bavaria.


“People expect flowers to make the ambiance, but for the last couple of years, I’ve worked a lot with potatoes.  You can design, design, but the potato is pure earth.  And what can you do without earth?”—Gerd Verschoon, Dutch floral designer and sculptor


Potato alcohol once powered small alliances, street lights and the V1 and V2 rockets in Germany.


“Happy is the man who has a good wife, but I tell you happy is a man who has a south facing slope where he can grow his potatoes.”—Anonymous


Potatoes are helping to solve the world food shortage.


“The value of the potato in calamity and wartime has been proved repeatedly.”—Anon


Potatoes are a good source of vegetable protein, with a ratio of protein to carbohydrate higher than in most cereals and other roots and tuber crops.


“Poets sing of dandelions, meadow grass and weeds

Authors write profoundly of our ordinary needs

But common white potatoes, seem unworthy of a song.

Though noone deigns to tell me just exactly what is wrong.

God has made the meadows and the grasses and the dew,

Don’t you think perhaps he made potatoes too?”—Anonymous


Beethoven composed music for the words of a popular German song praising the potato.


“Potatoes are like people they are seldom as good as they ought to be, perhaps because they both have 24 chromosones.”—Anon


Mashed potatoes are touted as effective cure for hangovers.


“Today in the world as a whole the most important vegetable is the potato.”

--Victor Boswell

Before the Irish had the potato for its rich source of vitamin C, they ate shamrocks.


“Even the potato has a certain low form of cunning.”—Samuel Butler


There are over 100 places in the USA named “potato.”


“I look upon potatoes in a different light.  To me they are glamorous, unique and special, an aristocrat among vegetables, and I love them in all guises from humble hash browns to that elegant French preparation known as ‘Pommes Anna.’”—James Beard


A type of linen cloth was made from potato stems by Austrians.


“The merriest-eyed potatoes, nursed in gloom,

Just resurrected from their cradle tomb.”—Will Carleton


The origin of the word “pothole” refers to the hole in the dirt floor of an Irish cottage where a pot of potatoes was placed for mashing.


“That the potato will alone sustain life in full vigor is proved by the Irish peasantry who do not taste animal food or wheaten bread the days of the year…yet a finer body of men and women is not to be found.  A corpulent man is seldom seen in Ireland but tall athletic well-formed men are far more common than in England.”—William Copeland