How the humble spud built an empire

Potato, potahto: The world produces around 381,682,000 tonnes of spuds every year.

Is there anything better than a roast spud? According to YouGov, potatoes are the most popular ingredient in the UK’s Christmas dinners. The vegetable has a surprisingly interesting history…

What is the best bit of your Christmas dinner? For some, it’s all about the meat: a big roast turkey or a tender goose. For the more whimsical, it’s a festive chipolata wrapped in bacon. For contrarians and traditionalists, nothing can beats Brussels sprout.

But there is one food that few Britons can do without, according to a recent survey by YouGov: and that is the humble roast potato. In fact, “fully 85% of people say that their ideal Christmas dinner would contain roast potatoes,” explains the polling company.

The Solanum tuberosum has been consumed for around 8,000 years, starting out in the tumultuous mountains of the Andes in South America. Although they were technically poisonous, tubers were able to survive the region’s freezing temperatures and high altitudes. Ancient civilisations slowly domesticated them, until the mighty Incas used them to fuel a resilient empire — complete with advanced farming and a potato-based tax system.

In 1536, the Spanish invaded and the Incan empire collapsed through war and disease. But the potato lived on. In fact, it thrived: it was brought back to Europe, a continent on the brink of starvation; every few years, wheat crops would fail and lead to massive food shortages.

Spuds are far less temperamental. They grow underground, so are less susceptible to changes in the weather. And they pack in up to four times more calories per acre than Europe’s previous staples, making them a much more productive vegetable.

Potatoes were greeted with suspicion by some, delight by others. They were called an aphrodisiac, blamed for causing leprosy, and eventually became a major part of the diet. Europe’s population boomed as a result, and its economy advanced. Marie Antoinette wore a potato-flower headdress.

In the end, the historian William H. McNeill says, they “permitted a handful of European nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750 and 1950”.

Are they really the best bit of a Christmas dinner?

Happy Christ-mash

Of course! say tater fans. Crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside; beloved by vegetarians and carnivores alike; the perfect mechanism for mopping up gravy. It is no wonder that spuds are so popular. This is happy proof that despite the razzmatazz of inventions like the turkducken, all anyone really wants is simple food cooked well.

Christmas is the ideal time to indulge in something a little over-the-top, insist others. Roasties are a great side dish; but few people would be happy with a plate of spuds and nothing else. And when it comes to food, the answer is always the same: there is nothing better than a little bit of everything. That is as true on Christmas Day as it is on any other.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite part of Christmas dinner?
  2. Are potatoes the most important discovery in Europe’s history?


  1. Why do you think roast potatoes are the most popular part of Christmas dinner? Write your answer in a single sentence.
  2. Design your perfect Christmas dinner, including a starter and dessert.

Some People Say...

“Let the sky rain potatoes!”

Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Potatoes are surprisingly nutritious. One serving of around 148g contains 110 calories, no fats or sodium, and half your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. It also contains vitamin B6. Of course, the nutritional value can change depending on how they are cooked: the fat content of deep-fried chips or well-roasted potatoes will certainly increase.
What do we not know?
What would have happened had potatoes never been brought back to Europe. The Smithsonian has stated: “Any general history of Europe without an entry in its index for S. tuberosum should be ignored.” Historians and economists have argued that without it, the industrial revolution and Europe’s rise may never have happened. However, it is impossible to know for sure.

Word Watch

Some wild potatoes still contain the toxic compounds solanine and tomatine. The ancient people of the Andes used to dip them in a mix of clay and water which allowed the toxins to pass through the digestive system without damaging the body. Eventually, the toxins were bred out so that this was not necessary.
The empire stretched down the western coast of South America, and was the world’s largest empire when it was invaded by Spain in the 16th century. By the 17th century, war and diseases like small pox had all but wiped the Incas.
Food shortages
For example, between 1500 and 1800 France had an average of one famine per decade.
After potatoes became common food staples, peasants led much healthier lives and started bigger families. Between 1750 and 1900, Europe’s population jumped from 126 million to 300 million.
A larger population and a surplus of food allowed people to move to the cities and diversify their countries’ industries. Fewer people were forced to work on farms.
A turkey, stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken.

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