Now that winter has officially arrived, it’s soup time in my kitchen. I prepare homemade vegetable soup with my own canned tomatoes, corn, beans, onions, and carrots. I also use my own potatoes, stored in the cool part of the cellar. I remember rolling up my shirtsleeves in mid November and getting to work with a potato fork. Digging up the last of my Kennebec, Katahdin and Green Mountain potatoes, reminded me of the book, Indian Givers, by Jack Weatherford. According to Weatherford, this native food crop changed the world. He writes that the potato is a tuber which descended from the nightshade family and grew wild throughout the America’s. It was used by indigenous tribes as far north as the southwestern United States.
Weatherford tells how the Incas of Peru first developed Las Patatas in the Andean Mountains. Growing potatoes at a variety of elevations produced tubers adapted to different surroundings. The Inca’s built thousands of terraces, which climbed great distances up and down the mountains. There are different micro-zones on a mountain, creating a perfect setting for all kinds of controlled experiments. For example, one side of the mountain can be green and lush with thick fogs while the other side is dry. Machu Picchu is just such a mountain.
This great agricultural society also figured out how to produce high yields of potatoes from small plots of land. They developed different kinds of potato plants for every type of soil, sun, and moisture condition. They prized diversity. They grew potatoes in a variety of sizes, shapes, textures, and colors, from whites and yellows through purples, reds, oranges, and browns. Some were sweet tasting. Others were too bitter for humans to eat and instead were used as animal fodder. Some potatoes matured fast and others slowly, an important consideration in a country where the growing season varies with the altitude. Some potatoes required lots of water and others very little, which made one variety or another more adaptable to the highly variable rainfalls.
At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 1500’s, the Incas were producing about three thousand different types of potatoes. This contrasts with the mere 250 varieties now grown in North America. Of these no more than twenty varieties constitute three-quarters of the total harvest.
By the 1800’s, the humble spud had spread to the rest of the world. The Europeans learned that a field of potatoes produced more food and nutrition more reliably and with less labor than the same field planted in any kind of grain. Farmers found that the potato needed none of the extensive milling and processing of grains. And the potato could be dug from the field and stored until the next planting season.
By the end of the seventeenth century the potato had become the staple food of Ireland. Today, the largest potato producing country in the world is Russia. Indeed, you could say that the potato has changed the world- along with other native, indigenous foods such as avocados, chocolate, cassava, the grain-amaranth, peppers, corn, beans, squash and tomatoes. Come to think of it, that covers most of the vegetables in my winter soup. This is Ron Krupp, the northern gardener.
–Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay. His latest book is “The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening”.