Consider the potato: Unpretentious but hardly humble, Solanum tuberosum has a rich place in history. Populations have risen from the ability to produce it, and fallen when it failed. It sustained the Incas in their mountain valleys, the Spaniards on their ocean voyages, the Irish in the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell, the settlers on the plains of early America.
And it is as rich in nutrients as it is in history. A 4-ounce potato baked in its skin has 124 calories, 2.6 grams of protein, 28.6 grams of carbohydrate, 0.1 gram of fat, no cholesterol and only 9 milligrams of sodium. It has an astonishing amount of vitamin C -- as much as 26 milligrams per pound -- and it has practically every vitamin except A.
"It's a very wonderful vegetable," says Lydie Marshall, who has documented her love of this most versatile of vegetables in a new cookbook, "A Passion for Potatoes." Researching the book led her to eat potatoes every day for two years -- "and, you know," she confides, "I still do."
She's hardly alone. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that Americans consumed 78.4 pounds of potatoes per capita in 1989. American farmers produced about 18.5 million tons of potatoes in 1989, up from 16.3 million tons in 1970.
Indeed, potatoes are so important in the world's diet that when Smithsonian Institution scholars began planning an exhibit on the consequences of Columbus' voyages to the "New World" (it was really another very old world, but the Europeans were too ethnocentric to see that), the potato was selected as one of five "Seeds of Change."
Potatoes are native to the high plateaus of Peru. After Peru was captured by Spain in 1536, potatoes were used as cheap food for sailors. Somehow, in this way, potatoes made their way back across the water, to all the lands where Spanish ships touched port.
"If one looks for a measure of the importance of American food crops in Old World history, this is it," says William H. McNeill in an essay in the book, "Seeds of Change," published in conjunction with the exhibit. "The surge of population and the spread of industrialization in northern Europe, with resulting power shifts since 1750, simply could not have followed their actual course without the nourishment provided by expanding fields of potatoes."
It is an odd legacy of that history that to this day, Americans eat fewer potatoes than northern Europeans: "A third as many as the Irish eat," says Gary Lucier, an agricultural economist with the USDA's Economic Research Service in Washington. The Spanish eat a lot more potatoes, and so do the English, he says.
Over the past 20 years, Americans' per capita consumption remained fairly steady -- it was 79.2 pounds in 1970 -- but the form of consumption changed. "We're eating a lot more french fries and a lot less fresh than we used to," Mr. Lucier said. He attributed the trend to the explosion of fast-food outlets, especially over the last decade.
He added, however, that just in the last few years, fresh use has started to hold its own -- in part because of another innovation in food preparation, the microwave.
The new ease of preparation combined with generally increased interest in good nutrition has led to a resurgence of interest in fresh potatoes, Mr. Lucier says.
"The potato is a nutritional gold mine," says Ms. Marshall, a cook and author who is director of La Bonne Cocotte Cooking School in New York. "And it's such a comforting food."
But Ms. Marshall has also hit on an aspect of the potato that can only endear it to consumers' hearts these days: "It's cheap.
"The '90s are going to be the years of tightening one's belt," she says.
Her cookbook offers about 200 ways to have potatoes -- from appetizers to entrees to desserts.
Any way you slice 'em, potatoes are a nutritious treat for family meals or for entertaining. Ms. Marshall points out that potatoes are a perfect fit in today's back-to-basics, health-conscious lifestyles: "Nowadays all you need to do is eat a potato and some broccoli and a glass of red wine, and you'll live forever."