Potatoes and Point

Angela Carter

  • The History and Social Influence of the Potato by Redcliffe Salaman, edited by J.G. Hawkes
    Cambridge, 729 pp, £35.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 521 07783 4

Eighty-odd years ago, when my father was a little boy, he would sometimes ask: ‘What’s for dinner?’ And my grandmother would reply: ‘Potatoes and point.’ That is, she would point to the hook in the rafters where the ham, if they’d had one, would have hung. Then they’d eat potatoes. This didn’t happen often: the family was relatively prosperous petit bourgeois and, besides, the coast of North-East Scotland, where they lived, had never become as totally dependent on the potato for nourishment as other communities in Europe, most notably Ireland. Even so, it happened.

The trouble with the easily grown and plentifully cropping potato is that it is so good for you, especially if you eat it with the skin on. It contains carbohydrates, protein, minerals and sufficient Vitamin C to ensure that the general use of the potato amongst urbanised communities did much to abolish scurvy. Potatoes and milk, taken together, form an adequate if monotonous diet, provided the potatoes are eaten in sufficient quantities. If you add leeks, butter and cream to your mess of milk and potatoes, it turns into potage bonne femme and if you then chill it (vichyssoise) you arrive at haute cuisine. But the indigent poor of Europe rarely aspired so high and the Irish of the 19th century were often forced to skip the milk. They also preferred to eat their potatoes only partially cooked (‘wid de bones in ’em’): that way, they stayed longer in the belly.

Redcliffe Salaman’s monumental book was first published in 1949, though it bears the mark of many long years in the making. A revised edition now appears with a new introduction by J.G. Hawkes. This account of the causes and effects of European potato-eating is also a history of poverty and of the manner in which the potato, ‘the root of misery’, helped to confine the poor within their poverty. Salaman describes the process as it operated, with the most classical simplicity, in Ireland: ‘by reducing the cost of living to the lowest possible limit, it caused the value of labour to fall to a corresponding level.’ Marie Antoinette thought the flowers of the potato plant were so pretty she could not resist tucking them in her hair. This was a precise visual equivalent of saying, ‘Let them eat cake’: an innocent, ignorant, provocative act.

The origins of the potato in its native South America are unimaginably ancient but, for Europe, it is a modern vegetable, uniquely suited to the economics of the modern period. It was brought from Peru in the 16th century by the Spanish Conquistadores, who, says Salaman, ‘immediately recognised its economic importance and at once relegated it as a food for slaves’. The tuber formed part of the booty of Spanish imperialism, a part with as far-reaching a significance as syphilis. How it got to Britain is a mystery. The legend that Raleigh brought it home from Virginia does not hold water: Raleigh never visited Virginia, where, in any case, the potato did not grow. Another legend persistently posits a shipwreck – a remnant of the Armada with potatoes amongst its stores foundering off the coast of Ireland, or Wales, or Lancashire, or all three.

It was a godless vegetable. It wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. The Old Believers, who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1667, regarded potatoes, along with sugar and tobacco, as abominations. The Irish surrounded the planting and harvesting of their crops with ritual and superstition – with good cause, as it turned out. Planting traditionally took place on Good Friday. The new vegetable soon acquired a good deal of old folklore. At Epinal, in France: ‘The woman who carries home the last sheaf, or the last basket of potatoes, is known throughout the year as the “corn” or “potato dog”.’ It must be the relative newness of the potato that makes the ‘potato dog’ seem a little incongruous: the potato is not a numinous vegetable. It is, literally, of the earth, earthy. One Spanish name is turma de tierra – that is, ‘earth testicle’ – bringing to mind Max Miller’s celebrated appearance with a couple of potatoes – ‘King Edwards!’ – at the Royal Command Variety Performance.

The potato became with great speed a staple food throughout Europe. It was greeted with especial enthusiasm in Ireland, where the moist climate is largely unsuited to the growing of wheat, and the people had been reduced to penury. The exemplary tragedy of the Great Hunger of 1845 and ’46 lies at the core of Salaman’s book and he arrives at it step by dolorous step, tracing the entire history of the English in Ireland and the systematic destruction of the Irish economy and domestic agriculture until, by the early 19th century, there survived a peasant class more miserable than any other in Europe, ‘a social order’, as Salaman says, ‘in which the distinction between the amenities of human life and those of the beasts of the field had become blurred’. In their turf cabins, the enormous families, six or seven children, eight or nine children – from the evidence Salaman amasses, the English were haunted by the spectre of Irish over-population – these feckless, ever-increasing, ragged families would gather round the cauldron hanging over the smoky peat fire, the interested cow or pig (should they be lucky enough to have one) looking on. Each, including the domestic animals, took his or her potato from the common pot. Salaman demands rhetorically: ‘What pride could be taken in the home, or what call was there for ceremony, however elementary, to welcome a meal that was about to be shared with the pigs and the poultry and from the same cauldron?’

Potatoes excepted, it would have been an ambience in which Langland’s Piers Plowman would have felt at home. It was one of Ireland’s misfortunes that much of her rural population found themselves helplessly locked in the late Medieval period, as in a time-warp, whilst England was bustling busily through the 19th century. There was scarcely any coin circulating in those villages: what there was went on rent. Otherwise, no need for cash! The family potato plot provided all the food and the potato does not take much in the way of cultivation. Neither do boiled potatoes take much of the cook’s time and attention. No washing-up, either. There was ample leisure. Indeed, some of Salaman’s sources exhibit a sharp moral dismay that the poor should have it so easy. He quotes Sir Charles Trevelyan: ‘The Irish smallholder lives in a state of isolation, the type of which is to be sought for in the islands of the South Sea, rather than in the great civilised communities of the ancient world. A fortnight for planting, a week or ten days for digging, and another fortnight for turf-cutting, suffice for his subsistence; and during the rest of the year he is at leisure to follow his own inclinations, without even the safeguard of the intellectual tastes and legitimate objects of ambition which only imperfectly obviate the evils of leisure in the higher ranks of society.’

One might almost think Sir Charles envied the Irish smallholder, so bitter is his resentment. Even Redcliffe Salaman himself, impregnably decent as he is, can see only a degraded peasantry sunk in sloth and intellectual darkness, locked in a hopeless symbiosis with the tuber. But, in spite of the most vicious inducements to abandon it, these peasants retained their impenetrable language, concealed within it a vast and continually refreshed tradition of oral poetry, and continued to make music of a beauty and complexity to be found nowhere else in Western Europe except Spain. They married young and sought to drive out the English by outnumbering them.

All the same, even if a way of life based exclusively upon the potato may be richer than Sir Charles Trevelyan suggests, when the root fails, all is lost. It is estimated that up to a million people died, either from starvation or from disease that came in the Famine’s wake. Emigration, to the United Status and also to Australia, that followed the Famine robbed Ireland of another million or so, and dowered those nations with a rich strain of ineradicable Anglophobia. To live habitually on the cheapest food is to leave yourself without resources – ‘except’, as Malthus said, ‘in the bark of trees like the poor Swedes’.

The Social History of the Potato is an extraordinary book, like no other, a vast compendium of curious fact and passionately recounted social history that calls to mind an unexpected but completely satisfying fusion of The Anatomy of Melancholy and Fernand Braudel’s Capitalism and Material Life. In its inflammatory humanitarianism, the book may now also stand as a monument to the sensibility of the period of welfare socialism voted in at the end of the Second World War: possibly the only time in the history of Britain (excepting 1649) when the great majority of British people actively demonstrated that they knew what was good for them, that potatoes were not sufficient fare.

In an article in the current Tatler, Mrs Elizabeth David laments that Salaman did not include recipes: in fact, he includes several. This is one, for the soup served in Epping Workhouse in the last years of the 18th century: ‘4 lbs pickled pork, 6 stones of shins and legs, 6 lbs of skibling (meat waste), 28 lbs of potatoes, 20 lbs of Scotch oatmeal, 21 lbs of salt, 1 lb of whole pepper and ¼ lb of ground pepper, a dozen carrots and a handful of mint, to 56 gallons of water.’ He notes: ‘The Epping soup was designed on more generous lines than was usual in such cases.’