'The Humble Spud': Potatocentrism

June 21, 1998|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the sun

"The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World," by Larry Zuckerman. Faber & Faber. 304 pages. $22.95.

I write from a cabin in the woods of New Hampshire. I'm not afraid of potatoes.

I still eat potatoes, even though Nicholson Baker, in a 1994 short story called "Subsoil," made the knavish spud into a fiendish villain that bored its bristly tentacles through a man's skull, transforming man into root. The story captured a dark patient aspect of the potato, gave it the same indomitable cunning that Sylvia Plath gave fungus in her poem "Mushrooms": "We shall," she wrote, "inherit the earth. Our foot's in the door."

Larry Zuckerman, a Seattle-based writer, knows a frightening great deal about potatoes, and I don't mean he knows how to cook them. I mean he knows how the darn thing sustained the European population boom and helped along the Industrial Revolution. In his new book, "The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World," he's dead set on making you worship the species.

He starts right off by telling us how much the early 17th-century Europeans, who first encountered the potato in Peru, hated it. It "had thick, slightly hairy stems" and "the main root branched into a whitish network to which long, thick fibers were attached." Sure, botanists - those twee aesthetes - were aroused by an obscene, furtive root, but your everyday European was grossed out. They knew that "every other edible plant reproduced by means of seeds, not grotesque, misshapen tubers. Surely, the devil crafted that magic."

Europeans were comically superstitious about their food, and they liked to eat a whole lot of fatty meat, anyway. They thought that lettuce was immoral, and when they said greens they usually meant the herbs you used to season a rump roast. The English were afraid to dig for the potato because its roots were so deep; spuds were "in a different realm - an unearthly one." To the French, bread-loyalists, potatoes were unfashionable, a food for old women and housewives and grandmothers.

Americans embraced the spud because it was part of our hardy, easy cornucopia; because the Irish, the Scots, and the Scandinavians who came here liked them; and because "insipidity, coarseness, baseness, filth, and so forth," the potato's "faults," didn't really bother us. Bother us?

Later in the book, the author's exhaustive, fine research pays off big with a concise, compelling explanation of the 19th-century's Irish Potato Famine. We learn about cholera, blight and potato bigotry. Nutrition. Potatoes as breakfast food. The origin of the potato chip. The difference between American and French table habits. Class issues and the cost of bread.

But frankly, I suspect Zuckerman's motives. At first I feared that the reason he took the potato so seriously was that he had nothing better to do. But the more I read, the more afraid I became. There is something just plain terrifying about a potatocentric history of Western Civilization.

Why, I wondered, is Zuckerman's argument so urgent? Why is he such a potato propagandist? What has the potato promised him?

It is dark here in the New Hampshire woods. Are those roots I hear scraping at my window?

Ben Neihart is the author of the novel "Hey, Joe." His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker. "Burning Girl," his new novel, will be published in April 1999.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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