Where in Paris should you take a potato?

Pere Lachaise Cementary.

The potato is for Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, 1805 Inspector-General of the Health Service and the man most responsible for getting white people to eat potatoes. Visitors to his grave today often leave potatoes (or french fries) as thanks for his introducing this staple crop to France and in doing so, reducing famine and revolution.

To paraphrase famed Russian anarchist and prince Peter Kropotkin, ‘famine is crucial to any revolution.’ (1) Or in the words of Rage Against the Machine, “Hungry people don’t stay hungry for long.” (2) Parmentier knew this. As the official pharmacist to Louis XVI and a public servant who worked through the turbulent revolution and even under Napoleon, he dedicated a large part of his work and his life to feeding people. (He did a lot with beets too.) Through out the 18th and early 19th century, potatoes were considered by the French to be disgusting and even poisonous. They were low, dirty, misshapen lumps only good for native savages or pigs..) That snobbery, even among French peasants, was unfortunate as wheat harvests in the Middle Ages were habitually unreliable.

To win over the populace, Parmentier marketed the potato as chic. He encouraged Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to host potato parties, he got Ben Franklin to do an endorsement, and he put a field of potatoes under guard to add to their allure. Though he failed in the short-run (the wheat harvest of 1788 was particularly bad and seen as a major cause for the subsequent overthrow of the monarchy), over time it worked, and we have Parmentier to thank. “The potato is the most nutritious of all the world's starchy food crops with more protein, vitamins and minerals than rice, wheat, sorghum or corn.”(3)

To envision the 18th century French view of potatoes, it may help to ask if you would eat dog food. No? Not even the dry kind? It’s not poisonous, can be mass produced cheaply and sustainably, and it sure would reduce the carbon footprint for those of us in the northern hemisphere who buy kiwis in February and eat meat daily. Maybe dog food just needs a new marketing campaign.

(1) “Famine and Revolution”. The New York Times. July 31, 1921. 08/13/09. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9F00E1DB153AEF33A25752C3A9619C946095D6CF

(2) Commerford, Timothy; De La Rocha, Zack; Morello, Thomas; Wilk, Brad “New Millennium Homes”. The Battle for Los Angeles. RATM.net. Sept. 26,09. 08/12/09. http://www.ratm.net/lyrics/new.html

(3) Seabrook, Jane and Richard Tarn. Plants that Changed the World: Potato”. 2008-12-15. Potato Research Centre, Fredericton, NB. 8/12/09. http://www4.agr.gc.ca/AAFC-AAC/display-afficher.do?id=1166205946362&lang=eng