Unearthing the humble potato's illustrious past After spending six years eye to eye with the simple spud, Larry Zuckerman has developed a deep-rooted respect for its role in our culture.

Ideas: History

May 03, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Larry Zuckerman introduces himself as a "historian." And he is, of sorts. His subject is the potato.

Now, you can do a lot with the potato: You can boil it, fry it, bake it; you can mash it, scallop it, flatten it into pancakes. You can even, as University of Maryland researchers just reported, instill it with a vaccine. But can you make a book out of it?

This question is, of course, rhetorical. Even now, "The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World" (Faber & Faber, $22.95) is being readied for sale in bookstores from coast to coast next month.

The book is full of interesting facts and fallacies. The potato was crucial to the social and economic transformation of Europe and North America. (True.) Henry VIII regarded the sweet potato as an aphrodisiac. (Doubly false: Not only is the sweet potato benign, it's not really a potato at all.)

And Zuckerman is convinced the potato is a subject with enough weight to justify the six years he spent writing and trying to publish his book. But there is a hint of the defensive in his presentation. Doesn't he cite the concern expressed by his fellow potato maven, Redcliffe N. Salaman, author of "History and Social Influence of the Potato," that people might question the sanity of anyone who devotes so many years of his life to "so banal a subject"?

That shows how much they know. It is a mundane object, as common as dirt. Still, the potato is full of lore and legend, a vegetable that has carried forth many of the continuities of human history.

Man must eat. Before he loves, lies, steals, kills or procreates. Of course the potato is important. As is corn, the codfish and the spices of the Indies. It is a Promethean subject. (Personally, I like mine fried, with a little vinegar.)

Zuckerman and his wife are among those rare native-born New Yorkers who wanted to live elsewhere. "We decided to leave for a quiet, calmer, cleaner, less expensive place," he says.

Baltimore was considered. But then came a promise of a job in Seattle. The job didn't turn out.

His wife, a clinical psychologist who already had work, said: "Write!" So Zuckerman did.

The potato as subject was not fetched out of the air. It had been with him for a long time, since his Peace Corps years (1974-1976) in the Central African Republic, where he ran a kitchen.

His African experience began to come back to him when he began reading about the venerable tuber - 13,000 years old by his reckoning. He read about the agricultural societies of the 1600s and 1700s in Europe, and came to realize that, through the potato, they were joined to agricultural life in 1970s central Africa. The rest is potato history.

The most important fact mined from the Himalaya of information he accumulated? That it probably facilitated the development of human and industrial society in the West more than any other food - owing to its tremendous efficiency, its food value, ease of growth, storage and preparation.

Such a grand conclusion notwithstanding, Zuckerman figures he's about finished with the potato.

These days, the author's thoughts are turning in disparate directions. The infamous Rape of Belgium by the Kaiser's troops in 1914 is one notion. He's also considering a book about being a stay-at-home father, a subject with which he has some experience: He has been taking care of his son, Aaron, for all of his four years now.

Certainly it seems that what he would have to say would be at least as interesting as the potato.

But, of course, you can never tell.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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