They call it the Columbian Exchange, the great migration of
products, principally foods, which began to go back and forth across
the Atlantic Ocean after the first European contacts with what they
called the New World. While other products from tobacco to wheat
have had dramatic impacts on both sides, few can match the record of
the humble potato.
Early settlers sought out anything they could find to ship home to
make a profit for those who had put up the money to finance their
colonies. Some things caught on quickly--tobacco, for one, was
popular enough to be condemned by health nuts like King James of
England as early as 1604. The potato took a little longer to catch
The tubers apparently came first to Spain where, for once, it was
decided to give them some investigation rather than just start
chowing down. This was motivated in part by a rumor that the plant
was something of an aphrodisiac, apparently because the Incas of
Peru used the vegetable to ease childbirth as well as to treat
wounds and injuries. Natural philosophers (as scientists were known
at the time) and religious zealots alike felt that there was enough
natural impulse to procreation already present in the population,
and the invention of Viagra could await a later day.
What potatoes did contain, however, was not only vastly more
important than mythical sex stimulants but explained the Peruvian
customs quite well: the potato is, it turns out, loaded with Vitamin
C. The main staples of the European diet at the time, wheat and
barley and such, contain none at all. (Citrus fruits, being imported
except in the far south, were available only to the royal or
the vitamin content, which would not come into the realm of
scientific understanding for some centuries yet, the potato is high
in protein (unlike the other staple American food, maize) and
minerals. As it came out of what passed for laboratories in those
days and into larger cultivation, the potato was first fed to
livestock. People were still a bit skeptical of it. It was a
relative of the tomato, the morning glory (which its flowers greatly
resemble) and the deadly nightshade.
Before long it was noted that the pigs to which the potatoes were
fed persisted in thriving. People eating the pigs were likewise
unharmed, so the matter proceeded to its logical conclusion. Famed
Smith ran the numbers:
"The food produced by a field of potatoes is not inferior in
quantity to that produced by a field of rice, and much superior to
what is produced by a field of wheat. Twelve thousand weight of
potatoes from an acre of land is not a greater produce than two
thousand weight of wheat. The food or solid nourishment, indeed,
which can be drawn from each of those two plants, is not altogether
in proportion to their weight, on account of the watery nature of
potatoes. Allowing, however, half the weight of this root to go to
water, a very large allowance, such an acre of potatoes will still
produce six thousand weight of solid nourishment, three times the
quantity produced by the acre of wheat."
Potatoes were also a whacking lot easier to raise. Take a few from
the year previous. Cut them up, making sure that each chunk contains
an eye, which is usually easy enough to determine since by spring
they will probably be sprouting. Hoe out a row, or heap a hill, and
plant. They promptly begin to grow and cover the surrounding area
with leafy vines, the leaves of which discourage weeds from growing
up in the patch.
Similarly, they are easier to consume. Wheat must be harvested, then
the grain separated from the stalk and head, then the resulting
nuggets must be ground into flour either by hand or a complicated
mill. At this point you are left with flour, which must then go
through more complicated proceedings to be turned into edible
material such as bread. A potato needs only to be dug up from the
ground and can, if need be, then simply eaten out of hand. Further
processing as simple as placing it in hot ashes in the fireplace
elevates it to the level of elegance.
Come back in the fall and dig them up, and you're set for another
winter. They can, should need arise, be dug up at earlier stages as
well. While such "new potatoes" will be quite small, they compensate
by being tender and flavorful, and just as nutritious as their older
counterparts. They can even be left in the ground and dug up a few
at a time as needed if the winter climate is mild enough, although
too much rain or a hard freeze will damage them and lead to rot.
So we have our potatoes planted, raised and harvested. What now?
Before we get down to the recipes, there are still some
care-and-feeding considerations to keep in mind. Potatoes should not
be exposed to sunlight either before harvest (sometimes rain will
wash soil away and leave potatoes exposed above ground) or after.
This will usually indicate itself by the potato turning green.
Remember the early fears that potatoes were poisonous? They
entirely wrong....but the problem is solved by cutting off the
green parts, and prevented by treating a potato like a powerful
politician treats you: keep it entirely in the dark as much as
Many of the varieties of potatoes we take for granted today were not
developed until after the Civil War. The best known is often called
simply the "Idaho potato" thanks to the ceaseless efforts of the
Idaho Potato Marketing Board. It is more technically termed the
Russet Burbank as it was developed by the famed botanist Luther
Burbank in 1872.
While we are not yet back to the diversity enjoyed by the Incas, who
are said to have had thousands of different varieties of potatoes,
things are at least improving. In the Civil War period we see pretty
much the basic white (large, often called "Irish") and red (small,
often called "new") potato. (The entire subject of sweet potatoes
and yams, which are different species both from the white and from
each other, will be left to another time.)
[All recipes until noted otherwise are from The Cook's Oracle,
and Housekeeper's Manual, by Dr. William Kitchiner M. D.,
published New York, 1832. Items in (parenthesis) were put there by
the original author; items in [brackets] are added by your humble
Potato, alone and naked
Wash them, but do not pare [peel] or cut them, unless they are very
large. Fill a sauce-pan half full of potatoes of equal size (or make
them so by dividing the larger ones), put to them as much cold water
as will cover them about an inch: they are sooner boiled, and more
savoury, than when drowned in water. Most boiled things are spoiled
by having too little water, but potatoes are often spoiled by too
much: they must merely be covered, and a little allowed for waste in
boiling, so that they may be just covered at the finish.
Set them on a moderate fire till they boil; then take them off, and
put them by the side of the fire to simmer slowly till they are soft
enough to admit a fork (place no dependence on the usual test of
their skins' cracking, which, if they are boiled fast, will happen
to some potatoes when they are not half done, and the insides quite
hard.) Then pour the water off (if you let the potatoes remain in
the water a moment after they are done enough, they will become waxy
and watery), uncover the sauce-pan, and set it at such a distance
from the fire as will secure it from burning; their superfluous
moisture will evaporate, and the potatoes will be perfectly dry and
You may afterward place a napkin, folded up to the size of the
sauce-pan's diameter, over the potatoes, to keep them hot and mealy
Potatoes, cold and fried
Put a bit of clean dripping [fat left over from meat previously
baked or roasted] into a frying-pan; when it is melted, slice in
your potatoes with a little pepper and salt; put them on the fire;
keep stirring them; when they are quite hot, they are ready.
Potatoes fried in Slices or Rounds
large potatoes; slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut
them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon [or
apple]; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or
dripping. Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean;
put it on a quick [hot] fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard
boils, and is still, put in the slices of potato, and keep moving
them till they are crisp. Take them up, and lay them to drain on a
sieve; send them up with a very little salt sprinkled over them.
As mentioned above, this recipes was printed in the US in 1832, and
was an admitted reprint/rewrite of an English cookbook of an even
earlier date. This recipe for fried potato "shavings" we consider an
obvious precursor of potato chips if not the exact item itself.
Claims that the product originated in Saratoga NY in 1853 may be
looked at with appropriate skepticism.
Now we have citations of potatoes sliced into very thin strips and
fried. These we now call "potato chips." We have further examples of
them sliced into thicker circles and fried, which we call, um,
"fried potatoes." What we seem to be lacking is a final geometric
development, potatoes cut into long thin rectangles and fried, which
we call "French fries." Unless we are French in which case we call
them "pommes frites" or "fried potatoes" which is straightforward
enough. (Actually that means "fried apples" as in French the potato
is known as a "pomme de la terre" or "apple of the earth." Your
linguistic lesson du jour, as it were.
What we do not call them is "food of the Civil War era." So onward
Wash and dry your potatoes (all of a size), and
put them in a tin Dutch oven, or cheese-toaster: take care not to
put them too near the fire, or they will get burned on the outside
before they are warmed through. Large potatoes will require two hour
to roast them. N. B.: To save time and trouble, some cooks half boil
Potatoes smothered in various substances
your potatoes are thoroughly boiled, drain them quite dry, pick out
every speck, &c., and while hot, rub them through a colander into a
clean stew-pan. To a pound of potatoes put about half an ounce of
butter, and a table-spoonful of milk: do not make them too moist, ;
mix them well together. After Lady-day [note: March 25, one of the
traditional "quarter days" of the English calendar], when the
potatoes are getting old and specky, and in frosty weather, this is
the best way of dressing them. You may put them into shapes or small
tea-cups; egg them with yelk of egg, and brown them very slightly
before a slow fire.
The reference to "Lady-day" means that the potatoes in question are
ones left over from the previous fall's harvest. Perhaps the
greatest difference in cuisine from the 19th century and that of
today is how cheap transportation has lessened the influence of the
calendar on the availability of food. It comes as a shocking and
unusual event for the price of tomatoes to skyrocket because a
hurricane the previous fall wiped out the plants which would in
normal years have been shipped from fields in Florida to the rest of
the country. In the Civil War era, one had better have canned enough
tomatoes to get one through the winter and spring, or one was shi..er,
we mean "simply", out of luck.
Potatoes mashed with Onions
Prepare some boiled onions by putting them through a sieve, and mix
them with potatoes. In proportioning the onions to the potatoes, you
will be guided by your wish to have more or less of their flavour.
(Nobody likes a smartass, Dr. Kitchiner. )
Colcannon (mashed potatoes with spinach)
Boil potatoes and greens, or spinage, separately;
mash the potatoes, squeeze the greens dry; chop them quite fine and
mix them with the potatoes, with a little butter, pepper and salt;
put it into a mould, buttering it well first; let it stand in a hot
oven for ten minutes.
This recipe seems to have fallen pretty universally out of favor.
The closest item we can find mention of today, also known as
colcannon, calls for cabbage rather than spinach, and may involve
additions of kale, leeks or other oniony items, as well as ham,
tongue or other meats.
Mix mashed potatoes with the yelk of an egg; roll them into balls;
flour them, or egg and bread-crumb them; and fry them in clean
drippings, or brown them in a Dutch oven.
A brief note on Dr. Kitchiner's spelling: the superfluous "U" in his
"flavour," "savour(y)" &c., reflect the fact that he is simply
rewriting an English book, where such spellings were, and are to
this day, considered correct. Even in the US they are correct for
the period although a tad obsolete. "Yelk" for the yolk of an egg
falls into much the same category although the current spelling is
also used in much older sources. Spelling was simply not as
standardized then as it is today.
"Specky" on the other hand is just a lovely word, apparently now
completely obsolete in this usage. It means something that has
specks on it, or an imperfection larger than a mote but not big
enough to render the whole potato unusable. This is unrelated to a
term in Australian rules football which we would explain if it were
not so hopelessly off our topic here.
Potato Balls Ragout
Are made by adding to a pound of potatoes a quarter of a pound of
grated ham, or some sweet herbs, or chopped parsley, an onion or
eschalot, salt, pepper, and a little grated nutmeg or other spice,
with the yelk of a couple of eggs: then are then to be dressed as
[Potato Balls, above.]
Potatoes and Meat
Beef Cakes (Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery,
Take some cold roast beef that has been under-done, and mince it
very fine. Mix with it grated bread crumbs, and a little chopped
onion and parsley. Season it with pepper and salt, and moisten it
with some beef-dripping and a little walnut or onion pickle. Some
scraped cold tongue or ham will be found an improvement. Make it
into bread flat cakes, and spread a coat of mashed potato thinly on
the top and bottom of each. Lay a small bit of butter on the top of
every cake, and set them in an oven to warm and brown. Beef cakes
are frequently a breakfast dish.
You know, a restaurant that often had leftover patties of finely
minced cold roast beef, and leftover quantities of previously
prepared potatoes, could probably come out with this recipe as a
completely original new creation and make a fortune, the market
being as overcrowded and desperate for innovation as it is. We ask a
mere 5% licensing fee, and request that negotiations be done through
our legal department.
Other Peculiar Things People Used to Do With Potatoes
Potato Cheese (from Mrs. Child's American Frugal
Potato cheese is much sought after in various
parts of Europe. I do not know whether it is worth seeking after or
not. The following is the receipt for making:--Select good white
potatoes, boil them, and, when cold, peel and reduce them to a pulp
with a rasp or mortar; to five pounds of this pulp, which must be
very uniform and homogeneous, add a pint of sour milk and the
requisite portion of salt; knead the whole well, cover it, and let
it remain three or four days, according to the season; then knead it
afresh, and place the cheeses in small baskets, when they will part
with their superfluous moisture; dry them in the shade, and place
them in layers in large pots or kegs, where they may remain a
fortnight. The older they are, the finer they become.
This cheese has the advantage of never engendering worms, and of
being preserved fresh for many years, provided it is kept in a dry
place, and in well closed vessels.
Wow, Lydia, you think you could make this sound any less attractive?
One gets the impression that Mrs. Child either had a page count to
fill up, without which she would not get paid for the book and her
children would starve, or an editor holding her at gunpoint to
include a treasured recipe from said editor's mother. Often the
travails of widow-women are lost to history.
Potato Starch (Dr. Kitchiner again)
Peel and wash a pound of full-grown potatoes,
grate them on a bread-grater into a deep dish, containing a quart of
clear water; stir it well up, and then pour it through a hair-sieve,
and leave it ten minutes to settle, till the water is quite clear:
then pour off the water, and put a quart of fresh water to it, stir
it up, let it settle, and repeat this till the water is quite clear;
you will at last find a fine white powder at the bottom of the
vessel. (The criterion of this process being completed, is the
purity of the water that comes from it after stirring it up.) Lay
this [powder] on a sheet of paper in a hair-sieve to dry, either in
the sun or before the fire, and it is ready for use, and in a
well-stopped bottle will keep good for many months.
If this be well-made, half an ounce, (i.e. a table-spoonful) of it
mixed with two table-spoonfuls of cold water, and stirred into a
soup or sauce, just before you take it up, will thicken a pint of it
to the consistence of cream.
Obs.--This preparation much resembles the "Indian arrow root," and
is a good substitute for it; it gives a fullness on the palate to
gravies and sauces at hardly any expense, and by some is used to
thicken melted butter instead of flour. Potatoes, in whatever
condition, whether spoiled by frost, germination, &c., provided they
are raw, constantly afford starch, differing only in quality, the
round gray ones the most.
Potato starch has rather fallen out of favor today, replaced by
cornstarch which is easily and cheaply made by mechanical means, and
arrowroot which is making a comeback.
Potato Pudding (from "The Good Housekeeper" by
Sarah Josepha Hale, 1841)
Boil three large mealy potatoes, mash them very smoothly, with one
ounce of butter, and two or three table-spoonfuls of thick cream;
add three well-beaten eggs, a little salt, grated nutmeg, and a
table-spoonful of brown sugar. Beat all well together, and bake it
in a buttered dish, for half or three quarters of an hour in a Dutch
oven. A few currants may be added to the pudding.
Currants were very popular ingredients in puddings, pies, even beer
in Civil War times. As they propagate easily, frequently growing
wild nearly everywhere, they were easily obtained even by the poor.
Unlike raisins in the days before seedless varieties were bred, they
did not have to be "stoned" before use. Whether they make an ideal
partner with potatoes is a subject left to the discretion, and
digestion, of the reader.
Irish Stew (Dr. K, who credits it to "Mr. Morrison
of the Leinster hotel, Dublin")
part of a neck of mutton, cut it into chops, season it well, put it
into a stew-pan, let it brase for half an hour, take two dozen of
potatoes, boil them, mash them, and season them, butter your mould,
and line it with the potatoes, put in the mutton, bake it for half
an hour, then it will be done, cut a hole in the top, and add some
good gravy to it.
Onions, frequently in massive quantities, are a frequent addition to
Irish Stew. The direction about "cutting a hole in the top" and
adding things (gravy) through it implies that a layer of either pie
crust or, more likely, mashed potatoes is used as a covering for
this dish. It is certainly not a stew in the sense we know it today!
Potato Pie (Dr. Kitchiner again)
Peel and slice your potatoes very thin into a
pie-dish; between each layer of potatoes put a little chopped onion
(three-quarters of an ounce of onion is sufficient for a pound of
potatoes); between each layer sprinkle a little pepper and salt; put
in a little water, and cut about two ounces of fresh butter into
little bits, and lay them on the top: cover it close with puff
paste. It will take about an hour and a half to bake it. N. B.: The
yelks of four eggs (boiled hard) may be added; and when baked, a
table-spoonful of good mushroom catchup poured in through a funnel.
And what the devil, you may well be wondering, is a "mushroom
catchup" supposed to be? Our
Ketchup page should fill you in nicely.