Posting here was light in the second quarter because of structural changes at the day job. To make up for that a little bit, here is a post on what a spread from the August, 1949 National Geographic titled “Our Vegetable Travelers” (text online here) calls, The “World's No. 1 Vegetable.” In a meal from the mid-century suburban or later fast-food diet, potato might be the only vegetable. It is the state vegetable of Idaho. There are a number of international potato organizations. Belgium is quick to promote the origin of pommes frites. A box in the larder tells me that Röschti is the national dish of Switzerland.
The Irish Famine of 1845-1847 was triggered by potato crop failure. This led, among other things, to a significant change in American demographics. There is a memorial here in Boston , now incongruously sited outside the Downtown Borders, and maybe not in the best taste.
Even the word potato has a complex history.
I will use potato to refer to Solanum tuberosum, which is the same genus as tomatoes and eggplants. In some places, potato can also refer to Ipomoea batatas and Solanum needs to be qualified as Irish potato or something like that; in a few places in the Deep South, Ipomoea is even the default. In the Northeast, Ipomoea is sweet potato or yam, more or less interchangeably (some people may make size or color distinctions). I will use sweet potato consistently here.
The potato chapter is the only one offered free online as a teaser for The Cambridge World History of Food. But the classic is Redcliffe Salaman's magisterial The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949, revised a little in 1985 by J. G. Hawkes to account for some advances in archeology and history, and still in print. Larry Zuckerman's The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World tries to cover some of the same ground in a more contemporary style. Larger cookbooks on potatoes will usually have a suitable overview of the history, as will books on potato growing. And there are article-length social studies like this or this. But none of these match the depth and breadth of Salaman. Redcliffe Salaman was a physician whom ill health forced into early retirement. When he recovered, he found himself in need of a hobby. To quote from his witty Preface:
Thirty-two years of age, happily married, free from financial cares, and devoted to hunting, one was unconsciously graduating for the part of a Jane Austen character. But I discovered, as I believe her men also would have done, had not their careers invariably terminated with their capture and mental sterilization at the altar, that ‘respectability’, even with a corresponding income, is not enough.
Salaman was an amateur, when that might still have warranted italics. In some ways, his works resembled modern efforts like the Potato Museum, begun by an American schoolteacher in Belgium in the 70s and continuing on the web; or the Potato Chronology of a New York potato farmer, which details everything that ever happened related to potatoes in chronological order, one line per entry. Redcliffe Nathan Salaman and his wife Nina (née Pauline Ruth Davis) were also prominent English Zionists. Most of what I have to say here is touched on in some way somewhere in his book's 700 pages.
Potatoes originate in the Andean Altiplano. The most recent genetic research by David Spooner suggests a single origin of domestication in what is now Peru (popularized report here). Nevertheless there is intense rivalry around priority and other such issues (for instance, this) among Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. The staple of these early cultivators was chuño, made by allowing the tubers to freeze in the cold night, crushing them by foot, and then drying them in the bright daytime sun. In other words, freeze-dried potatoes, which will keep for years once dried, much as in The Waste Land, “feeding a little life with dried tubers.” Chuño was fed to workers in the notorious Potosí mines, which supplied silver to the Inca and then Spanish empires.
The first recorded encounter by Europeans is in Juan de Castellanos, Historia del Nuevo Reino de Granada, a chronicle in verse of an expedition to what is now Colombia, in reporting the events of 1537, written in 1601, but not published until 1886. Open entering a deserted village, they found a new vegetable:
Allí hicieron noche, y otro día
entraron por las grandes poblaciones
de Sorocotá, ya todas desiertas,
con el mismo temor de sus vecinos,
aunque las casas todas proveídas
de su maíz, frijoles y de turmas,
redondillas raíces que se siembran
y producen un tallo con sus ramas,
y hojas y unas flores, aunque raras,
de purpúreo color amortiguados;
ya las raíces desta dicha hierba,
que será de tres palmos de altura,
están asidas ellas so la tierra,
del tamaño de un huevo más o menos,
unas redondas y otras perlongadas:
son blancas y moradas y amarillas,
harinosas raíces de buen gusto,
regalo de los indios bien acepto,
y aun de los españoles golosina. (p. 359)
There they spent the night, and entered the next day, for the great population of Sorocota had all already deserted, with the same fear as their neighbors, although the houses were all provided with corn, beans, and truffles, little round roots that go to seed and produce a stem with their branches, and leaves and flowers, which, though rare, are of a dull purple color; already the roots of the said plant, which will be three hands in height, are grouped under the earth, of the size of an egg, more or less, some round and others oblong; they are white and purple and yellow, floury roots with a good taste, a very acceptable gift for the Indians and even a treat for the Spanish.
Estaban todas estas casas llenas
de varias municiones y pertrechos;
maiz, fríjoles, turmas y cecinas,
y otros preparamentos para guerra; (p. 363)
All these houses were full of munitions and equipment; corn, beans, truffles, and cured meats, and other provisions for war;
A little later, they reached what is now Bogotá:
Another report of just about the same time is by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (who was proposed in this book by Germán Arciniegas as the real life Don Quixote — here is a review giving the gist) in Epítome del Nuevo Reino de Granada, reporting on April 1537. I cannot find the text online, but this study of the Epítome has an appendix with a transcription and large fold-out pages of a facsimile. The book has been scanned into Google Books, but the bibliographical information is entirely wrong; here is the snippet. It is also quoted in this study of native vocabulary in the work. He says:
donde los indios Moscas afirmaban
haber montones de oro por las casas,
como tenían ellos de los granos
de maíz y de turmas y frijoles, (p. 386)
… where the Muisca Indians affirmed that they had mountains of gold by the houses, they had ones of corn kernels and truffles and beans,
Las comidas desta gente son las de otras p[ar]tes de Yndias y algunas más, por que su prinçipal mantenimi[en]to es maiz y yuca. Sin esto tienan otras dos o tres man[er]as de plantas de que se aprovechan muncho para sus mantenimi[en]tos, quo son unas a man[er]a de turmas de t[ie]rra quo llaman yomas, …
The foodstuffs of these people are those of the other parts of the Indies and something more, because their principal staples are corn and manioc. Besides these they have two or three other plants which they esteem much as food, of which one is a type of truffle which they call yomas.
Francisco López de Gómara, Historia General de las Indias (1552) is the first to record the word papa, which is used in some dialects of Spanish for 'potato' (with feminine gender, unlike the Pope, who is masculine):
Viven en el Collao los hombres cien años y más; carecen de maíz y comen unas raíces que parecen turmas de tierra y que llaman ellos papas. (ch. CXLII; slightly different text quoted here)
In Collao men live to be a hundred or more; they lack corn and eat roots which resemble truffles, which they call papas.
De los mantenimientos naturales fuera del mayz ay otras dos, que ſe tienen por principal baſtimento entre los Indios. Al vno llaman Papas, que es a manera de turmas de tierra: el qual deſpues de cozida, queda tan tierno por dentro como caſtaña cozida: no tiene caſcara ni cueſco mas que lo que tiene la turma de tierra: porque tambien naſce debayo de la tierra como ella. Produze eſta fruta, vna yerua ni mas ni menos que la hamapola. Ay otro baſtimento muy bueno, a quien llaman Quinua: la qual tiena la boja ni mas ni menos quo bledo moriſco: y creſce la planta del caſi vn eſtado de bombre: y echa vna ſemmila muy menuda: della es blanca y della es colorada. De la qual hazen breuajes: y tambien la comen guiſada, como noſotros el arroz. (ch. xl; modernized snippet)
Of the native foodstuffs there are two which, aside from corn, are the main staples of the Indians' diet: the potato, which is like the truffle, and when cooked is as soft inside as boiled chestnuts; it has neither skin nor pit, any more than the truffle, for it is also borne underground. Its foliage looks exactly like that of the poppy. There is another very good food they call quinoa, which has a leaf like the Moorish chard; the plant grows almost to a man's height, and produces tiny seeds, some white, some red, of which they make drinks and which they eat boiled, as we do rice. (tr. de Onis)
… donde el temperamento es tan frío y tan seco, que no da lugar a criarse trigo, ni maíz, en cuyo lugar usan los indios otro género de raíces, que llaman papas, que son a modo de turmas de tierra y echan arriba una poquilla hoja. Estas papas cogen y déjanlas secar bien al sol y, quebrantándolas, hacen lo que llaman chuño, que se conserva así muchos días y les sirve de pan, y es en aquel reino gran contratación la de este chuño para las minas de Potosí. (Vol. I Chap. XVII / p. 361)
There the climate is so cold and dry that it does not lend itself to the cultivation of either wheat or maize, in place of which the Indians use another kind of root, which they call papas, or potatoes. These look like lumps of earth with a few leaves on top. The Indians gather these potatoes and let them dry in the sun and then mash them and make what they call chuño, which lasts for many days in this form and takes the place of bread; in that kingdom there is a great deal of commerce in chuño for the mines of Potosí. (tr. López-Morillas)
Although it is later still (1615), also worth mentioning is Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (reprint and online), because of its illustrations. For instance, June shows people harvesting potatoes.
It took some time for the conquistadors to reach the highlands. But almost immediately Columbus had encountered a somewhat similar vegetable that would prove to be the source of endless confusion, the sweet potato or yam. This is recorded in the very same accounts as the chili pepper.
From Diego Alvarez Chanca's 1494 letter:
todas vienen cargadas de ages, que son como nabos, muy excelente manjar, de los cuales facemos acá muchas maneras de manjares en cualquier manera. (online here)
They all come loaded with ages, which are like turnips, very excellent for food, which we dressed in various ways. (tr. R. H. Major)
From Columbus' journal (PDF) for 13 Dec. 1492:
Dixeron los cristianos que, después que ya estavan sin temor, ivan todos a sus casas y cada uno les traía de lo que tenía de comer, que es pan de niamas, que son unas raízes como rávanos grandes que nacen, que siembran y nacen y plantan en todas estas tierras, y es su vida, y hazen de ellas pan y cuezen y asan y tienen sabor proprio de castañas, y no ay quien no crea comiéndolas que no sean castañas.
The Christians related that, as soon as the natives had cast off their fear, they all went to the houses, and each one brought what he had to eat, consisting of yams, which are roots like large radishes, which they sow and cultivate in all their lands, and is their staple food. They make bread of it, and roast it. The yam has the smell of a chestnut, and anyone would think he was eating chestnuts. (tr. Clements R. Markham)
And for 16 Dec:
Tienen sembrado en ellas ajes, que son unos ramillos que plantan y al pie de ellos nacen unas raízes como çanahorias, que sirven por pan, y rallan y amasan y hazen pan de ellas, y después tornan a plantar el mismo ramillo en otra parte y torna a dar cuatro o cinco de aquellas raízes que son muy sabrosas, propio gusto de castaña. Aquí las ay más gordas y buenas que avía visto en ninguna tierra, porque también dizque de aquellas avía en Guinea. Las de aquel lugar eran tan gordas como la pierna.
They raise on these lands crops of yams, which are small branches, at the foot of which grow roots like carrots, which serve as bread. They powder and knead them, and make them into bread; then they plant the same branch in another part, which again sends out four or five of the same roots, which are very nutritious, with the taste of chestnuts. Here they have the largest the Admiral had seen in any part of the world, for he says that they have the same plant in Guinea. At this place they were as thick as a man’s leg. (tr. Clements R. Markham)
Columbus has confused yams (niamas, Dioscorea), which he encountered in Africa, with sweet potatoes (ajes, Ipomoea).
Qui in natiuo ſolo recentia ederunt, illorum cum admiratione ſuauitatem extollunt, effodiunt etiam e tellure ſuapte natura naſcentes radices, indigenæ Batátas appelant quas vt vidi Inſubres napos exiſtimaui, aut magna terræ tubera. Quocunque modo condiantur aſſæ vel elixe nulli cruſtulo aut alio cuiuis edulio cedunt dulcorata mollicie, cutis aliquanto tenatior quem tuberibus aut napis terreique coloris, caro candidiſſima. Seruntur etiam & coluntur in hortis vti de Iúcca diximus in Decade prima. Comeduntur & crude. Viridis caſtaneæ guſtum cruda imitatur, eſt tamen dulcior, … (Second decade, Book IX)
There are certain roots which the natives call potatoes and which grow spontaneously. The first time I saw them, I took them for Milanese turnips or huge mushrooms. No matter how they are cooked, whether roasted or boiled, they are equal to any delicacy and indeed to any food. Their skin is tougher than mushrooms or turnips, and is earth-coloured, while the inside is quite white. The natives sow and cultivate them in gardens as they do the yucca, which I have mentioned in my First Decade; and they also eat them raw. When raw they taste like green chestnuts, but are a little sweeter. (tr. MacNutt)
Maizium & hæc terra generat ac Iuccam, Aies & Batatas, vti cæteræ regiones illæ, … (Third decade, Book IV)
… maize, yucca, ages, and potatoes, all grow in this country as they do everywhere on the continent.
Batatas es un grand mantenimiento para los indios en aquesta isla Española é otras partes, é de los presçiosos manjares que ellos tienen, y muy semejantes á los ajes en la vista, y en sabor muy mejores; (Book vii, Chapter 4)
Potatoes are a great sustinence for the Indians in that island Hispanola and other places, and of the precious foods which they have, they are both similar to ajes in appearance and in taste much better.
There seems to be agreement that the Taino words aje and batata refer to different varieties of sweet potato, but not as to exactly what that difference is. The word patata is evidently a combination of the Quechan word papa and the Taino word batata. This is the word used in Spain for 'potato'. Spanish writers are generally careful to distinguish batata (Ipomoea) and patata (Solanum). In particular, the earliest reference to potatoes bound for Europe is from 28 Nov. 1567 in the Canary Islands, when Lorenzo Palenzuela, a notary public, recorded some bound for Antwerp, Belgium, “y asi mismo recibo tres barriles medianos [que] decis lleven patata y naranjas e lemones berdes” 'and in the same way I received three medium size barrels [that] you said carried potatoes, oranges, and green lemons'. (See here and here; the latter also reproduces the handwritten records, though the US$4 / page price is still pretty steep. This longer article is a somewhat better deal. Since Cinven and Candover bought out Bertelsmann Springer, not even larger institutions can afford the complete electronic backlist, so there is little alternative.) Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for other languages, like English, that have borrowed the word(s).
Initially, potato always referred to the sweet potato, since that was the only kind known in England.
John Hawkins, writing in 1565 of his second voyage, as published in Richard Hakluyt's 1600, The principal navigations, voyages, traffiques and discoveries of the English nation:
Theſe Potatoes be the moſt delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe farre exceed our paſſeneps or carets. Their pines be of the bignes of two fiſts, the outſide whereof is of the making of a pine-apple, but it is ſoft like the rinde of a Cucomber, and the inſide eateth like an apple but it is more delicious than any ſweet apple ſugred. (p. 507; reprint)
Of the potato and ſuch venerous roots as are brought out of Spaine, Portingale, and the Indies to furniſh vp our bankets, I ſpeake not, wherin our Mures of no leſſe force, and to be had about Croſbie Rauenſwath, do now begin to haue place. (p. 167; reprint)
The online OED says, “With the spelling in -o- in English cf. the following early rendering of batata,” and cites Richard Eden's translation of Peter Martyr, The Decades of the Newe Worlde, for the first passage above. This passage seems to read:
They dygge alſo owte of the ground certeyne rootes growynge of theim ſelues, whiche they caule Betatas, much lyke vnto the nauie rootes of Mylayne, or the greate puffes or muſheroms of the earth. Howe ſoo euer they bee dreſſed, eyther fryed or ſodde, they gyue place to noo ſuch kynde of meate in pleaſant tendernes. The ſkyn is ſumwhat towgher then eyther of nauies or muſſheroms, and of earthy coloure: But the inner meate therof, is verye whyte. Theſe are nooryſſhed in gardens, as we ſayde of Iucca in the fyrſte Decade. They are alſo eaten rawe, and haue the taſte of rawe cheſtnuttes, but are ſumwhat ſweeter. (p. 82)
That is, it says betatas, with -e-, for the Latin batátas. EEBO has scans of three copies of this book (1 2 3). Some of the type is filled in, but the one that is the clearest certainly seems to be e. Interestingly enough, Edward Arber's 1885 reprint does in fact use botata; perhaps that was the OED source.
The pronunciation of potato also plays, this time in American English, in George and Ira Gershwin's Let's Call The Whole Thing Off. The premise calls for a contrast between [pəˈteɪɾoʊ] and [pəˈtɑːɾoʊ]. Now, I don't think I actually know anyone who has the latter pronunciation, though I do know people who say [təˈmɑːɾoʊ], at least partially as an affectation, since they otherwise speak a Midwestern dialect and do not say [təˈmɑːtəʊ]. A couple of YouTube covers are worth noting: this one is by a Harvard a cappella group and introduced by a linguistics major, and this one animates Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's rendition with IPA transcriptions of the contentious words. (It is also interesting that the lyrics given include verses that involve lexical substitution, like mater and pater for mother and father. I've never heard these sung.) In any case, [pəˈteɪɾə] is a real American dialect pronunciation, and even [pəˈteɪɾɚ]. Something like this leads to tater, which is glossed in most dictionaries as dialectical, but has entered Standard English in the form tater-tots, a dish of fried grated potatoes about the size and shape of a thumb.
Returning to Shakespeare's day, potato was still always the sweet potato. So, when Falstaff says,
My Doe, with the blacke Scut? Let the ſkie raine Potatoes: let it thunder, to the tune of Greenſleeues, haile-kiſſing Comfits, and ſnow Eringoes : Let theſe come a tempeſt of prouocation, I will ſhelter mee heere. (Merry Wives of Windsor 5.5.18 folio)
He is referring to some kind of candied sweet potato aphrodisiac, along with comfits and eryngoes. They are “venerous roots,” as mentioned above. So John Harrington's 1596 A new discourse of a stale subiect, which is ostensibly about the newly invented water-closet, but which extends to more general satire,
I will nowe drawe to the concluſion of this ſame tedious diſcourſe: for it is high time now to take away the boord, and I ſee you are almoſt full of our homely fare, and perhaps you haue beene vſed to your dainties of Potatoes, of Caueare Eringus, plums of Genowa, all which may well increaſe your appetite to ſeuerall euacuations, we will therfore now (according to the phiſick we learned euen now) riſe & ſtretch our legs a litle, & anon I wil put on my boots, and go a peece of the way with you, and diſcourſe of the reſt: in the mean time my ſelfe will go perhaps to the houſe we talke off, though maners would, I offered you the French curteſie, to go with me to the place, where a man might very kindely finiſh this diſcourſe. (p. 86)
On the other Shakespeare potato quote,
How the diuell Luxury with his fat rumpe and
potato finger, tickles these together: frye lechery, frye. (Troilus & Cressida 5.2.56 folio)
George Steevens has a note that it so long that is is moved to the end. It gives many potato references and so complements Salaman's chapter on potatoes in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. One of those cited by both is William Warner's 1595 translation of Plautus' Menæchmi.
★ Men. Let a good dinner be made for vs three. Harke ye, ſome oyſters, a mary-bone pie or two, ſome artichockes, and potato rootes; let our other diſhes be as you pleaſe. (B 2)
Elizabethan delicacies have been substituted for Roman ones. Plautus wrote:
Iube igitur tribus nobis apud te prandium accurarier
atque aliquid scitamentorum de foro opsonarier,
glandionidam suillam, laridum pernonidam,
aut sincipitamenta porcina aut aliquid ad eum modum,
madida quae mi adposita in mensa miluinam suggerant;
atque actutum. (I.iii. 208-213)
Order a breakfast, then, to be provided for us three at your house, and some dainties to be purchased at the market; kernels of boars' neck, or bacon off the gammon, or pig's head, or something in that way, which, when cooked and placed on table before me, may promote an appetite like a kite's: and-forthwith (tr. Riley)
The note is signed Collins; one of Steevens' jokes was to attribute racier commentary to Richard Amner and John Collins, two clergymen who earned his scorn. The note ends with,
The accumulation of inſtances in this note is to be regarded as a proof how often dark alluſions might be cleared up, if commentators were diligent in their reſearches.
Words to live by. Of Steevens, Boswell tells the following anecdote:
Talking of an acquaintance of ours, whose narratives, which abounded in curious and interesting topicks, were unhappily found to be very fabulous; I mentioned Lord Mansfield's having said to me, ‘Suppose we believe one half of what he tells.’ Johnson. ‘Ay; but we don't know which half to believe. By his lying we lose not only our reverence for him, but all comfort in his conversation.’ Boswell. ‘May we not take it as amusing fiction?’ Johnson. ‘Sir, the misfortune is, that you will insensibly believe as much of it as you incline to believe.’ (Life of Johnson iv. 178)
The first English mention of potatoes is in John Gerard's 1596 Catalogus arborum, which lists both Papus orbiculatus and Papus Hyſpanorum (p. 9). The 1599 edition adds English glosses: Papus orbiculatus = Bastard Potatoes and Papus Hyſpanorum = Spanish Potatoes (p. 10). Gerard was also the first to describe potatoes in English and to apply that word to them. In his 1597 The herball or Generall historie of plantes, he has chapters for Potatoes and Potatoes of Virginia (334-335). The 1633 edition (Dover reprint), revised by Thomas Johnson, in addition to extending the text, adds a more realistic drawing of potatoes, which were by then more widely known (349-350; here for the 1636 edition, which is the same).
Siſarum Peruvianum, ſiue Batata Hiſpanorum.
Potatus, or Potato's.
This Plant (which is called of ſome Siſarum Peruvianum, or Skyrrets of Peru) is generally of vs called Potatus, or Potatoes.
Cluſius calleth it Battata, Camotes, Amotes, and Ignames: in Engliſh, Potatoes, Potatus, and Potades.
Of Potatoes of Virginia.
Battata Virginiana, ſiue Virginianorum, & Pappus:
The Indians do call this plant Pappus, meaning the roots: by which name alſo the common Potatoes are called in thoſe Indian countries. We haue the name proper vnto it mentioned in the title. Becauſe it hath not onely the ſhape and proportion of Potatoes, but alſo the pleaſant taſte and vertues of the ſame, we may call it in Engliſh, Potatoes of America or Virginia.
‡ Cluſius queſtions whether it be not the Arachidna of Theophraſtus. Bauhine hath referred it to the Nightſhades, and calleth it Solanum tuberoſum Eſculentum, and largely figures and deſcribes it in his Prodromus, pag. 89. ‡
Gerard initiated the idea that potatoes came from Virginia, which was generally accepted, though not unchallenged, well into the 19th century. This led to their being equated with another tuber, Apios americana, now known as the potato bean or Indian potato, described by Thomas Harriot in his 1586 A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (Dover reprint — this work also came up in the squash post):
Openavk are a kind of roots of round forme, ſome of the bignes of walnuts, ſome far greater, which are found in moiſt & mariſh grounds growing many together one by another in ropes, or as thogh they were faſtnened with a ſtring. Being boiled or ſodden they are very good meate. (p. 16 / 26)
Jerusalem-Artichoaks, Batatas, (Potatoes,) of Canada. (p. 71)
The potato features in the important Continental herbals of about the same time.
Cest arbuſtre, dit Cartoufle, porte fruict de meſme nom, ſemblable à truffes, & par d'aucuns ainſi appellé. (p. 563)
This plant, called Cartoufle, has fruit of the same name, similar to truffles, and is so called by some.
The next year, Charles de L' Écluse (Clusius)'s Rariorum plantarum historia was published. It uses the same woodcut as the later Gerard edition would. (Salaman seems to be saying that this comes from L'Obel's Plantarum, seu, Stirpium historia, but I don't see it online. He gives the later date, 1581, of other works, Kruydtboeck oft beschrÿuinghe van allerleye ghewassen, kruyderen, hesteren, ende gheboomten and Plantarum seu stirpium icones — the latter having no text other than captions, but I don't see it in either one. It is true that the sweet potatoes are the same and these too changed between editions.) Clusius is at pains to find a classical reference, under the essentially medieval supposition that nothing in the new world is really new. He chooses a vague description in Theophrastus' Enquiry into Plants. Clusius says:
Arachidna Theoph. fortè, Papas Peruanorum. (book iiii p. lxxix-lxxx)
Considerandum porrò an hæc Planta Veteribus fuerit cognita. Theophraſt. lib. I. Hiſt. Plant. cap. XI. Arachidnæ meminit, quæ cum hac perbelle convenire mihi vedetur, præſertim radicis hiſtoria. Nam ἀριχίδνην καὶ ὅηοιον τῷ ἀράκῳ fructum ferre afferit non minorem eo qui in ſupernis plantæ partibus naſcitur: & radicem quidem unam carnoſam & craſſam, que in altum demittitur, ceteras (in quibus fructus) reneriores, ſummo ceſpite, & quaqua verſum diffuſas. Neutrum tamen folia habere dicit, aut folijs quidquam ſimile, ſed quaſi utrimque fructum edere, quod mirum, inquit, videtur. Sed mihi facile perſuaſerim, utriuſque plantæ hiſtoriam, Theophraſto ſua commentanti, parum integram fide recitatam: primo etiam ejuſdem libri capite, illam reponit inter ſtirpes quæ ſub terra fructum ferunt. Diligentet expendant Petitiores, & forſitan ad meam ſententiam accedent.
Now one must consider whether this plant has been known to the ancients. Theophrastus, Book I, Hist. Plant., Cap. XI, gives information concerning Arachidna which seems to me to agree very well with this, especially in relation to the history of the root. For, says he, the Arachidna and that which resembles the Aracus bears fruit no smaller than that which is borne on the upper part of the plant and it has one thick fleshy root which goes vertically down, others (on which there are fruits) are thinner at a level of the ground and are scattered widely. But he [Theophrastus] says that neither of them have leaves nor anything akin to leaves but seem to produce, he says, as it were a fruit in both places, which is marvellous.
But I could readily persuade myself that Theophrastus, in considering his subject, has not given the account of each plant with sufficient accuracy. Even in the first chapter of the same book, he places it amongst those plants which bear fruit underground. But let those more skilled than I weigh the matter carefully and it may be that will come to the same opinion as myself. (tr. Salaman)
Here are the relevant sections of Theophrastus:
καὶ ὅσα δὴ καὶ ὑπὸ γῆς φέρει καρπὸν, οἶον ἥ τε ἀριχίδνα καὶ τὸ ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ καλούμενον οὔϊγγον (1.1.7)
while some plants again even bear their fruit underground, for instance arakhidna and the plant called in Egypt uingon; (tr. Hort)
Ἔνιαι δὲ τῶν ῥιζῶν πλείω δόξαιεν ἂν ἔχειν διαφορὰν παρὰ τὰς εἰρημένας· οἷον ἅι τε τῆς ἀριχίδνης καὶ τοῦ ὁμοίου τῷ ἀράκῳ· φέρουσι γὰρ ἀμφότεραι καπρὸν οὐκ ἐλάττω τοῦ ἄνω· (1.6.12)
Again some roots would seem to shew a greater difference than those mentioned, for instance, those of arakhidna, and of a plant which resembles arakos. For both of these bear a fruit underground which is as large as the fruit above ground, (tr. Hort)
Although the chapter number does not line up, the latter one is presumably intended. It is more generally accepted that arachidna refers to Lathyrus amphicarpos. The word also occurs in Pliny (translation).
The scientific name Solanum tuberosum and with it the realization of just how closely related potatoes are to eggplants (and tomatoes, and so on) is due to Gaspard Bauhin, in his 1596 Φυτοπιναξ (Phytopinax — the book is in Latin, only the first word of the title is Greek), book V. sect. I. ch. XIX. p. 301. In the 1620 Προδρομος (Prodromos), he extended it to Solanum tuberosum esculentum (p. 89), which was taken by Linnaeus as the basis for the binomial name. (In fact, that species is used here as a historical example in a plant taxonomy class. Note also that the 1911 Brittanica's Potato article confuses the two books, giving the latter name and page reference with the former title and date.) Tying together some of the earlier references above, he says:
Huius radices in Virginea Openanck dici, eius hiſtoriæ autor monet. Petrus Cieca in ſua Chronica (& Gomara in ſua Indiarum hiſtoria generali) Papas locis Quito vicinis vocari ſcribit: Benzoni, Pape, & Ioſepho Acoſtæ in hiſt. Indiæ, Papas: hinc Papas Indorum vel Hiſpanorum dicitur, Italis Tartuffoli, quo nomine & tubera nominare ſolent, Germanis Grüblingbaum / id eſt, tuberum arbor dicitur. ¶ Plantæ huius cum anno 1590. iconem ſuis coloribus delinearum, a D. Scholtzio, Pappas Hiſpanorum nomine accepiſſem, & à nemine deſcriptam inuenirem, in Phytopinace ſub Solanuo tuberoſo, & in Matthiolo, ſub Solano tuberoſo eſculento, figura addita, deſcripſimus, eiuſque iconem D. Cluſio tranſmiſimus. Solanum appelauimus, propter formam aliquam foliorum cum malis aureis: florum, cum malis inſanis: fructum cũ baccis Solani vulgaris: feminum, cum Solanis pene omnibus: denique, propter totius plantæ odorem, quem cum Solanis communem habet. (p. 90)
The roots are called Openauck in Virginia as the author of its history [Clusius] tells in his History.
Petrus Cieza in his Chronicle, and Gomara in his General History of the Indies, write that it is called ‘Papas’ in places about Quito. Benzoni calls it ‘Papa’, and Joseph Acosta in the History of India, ‘Papas’; hence it is called Papus Indorum or Hispanorum, by Italians it is called tartoffoli, a name they also apply to the tubers, by the Germans it is called Grübblingsbaum, that is, ‘the tree of truffles’.
When in the year 1590 I had received a drawing of the plant in its natural colours from Dr Scholtzius under the name Papas Hispanorum and could find it described by nobody, I described it in my Phytopinax under the name Solanum tuberosum, and in my edition of Matthiolus as Solanum tuberosum esculentum with a figure annexed, and I sent this drawing to Dr Clusius. I called it Solanum on account of the similarity of its leaves with those of Lycopersicum [tomato], of its flowers with that of the unsound apple [Aubergine], of its fruits with that of Solanum vulgare, and of its seed with almost all the Solanums, finally on account of the smell of the whole plant it has a further affinity with the Solanums. (tr. Salaman)
… hanno vna certa maniera di radice detta pape, che ſono come tartuffoli, però di poco ſapore. (p. 169)
They have also a sort of root [called pape] like truffles, but possessing very little flavour. (tr. Smyth)
It is known that potatoes arrived early in Italy, but there are no early records of when or how. So Clusius:
Is à familiari quodam Legati Pontificis in Belgio ſe accepiſſe ſcribebat anno praecedente, Taratouffli nomine.
Vnde primum nacti ſint Itali, ignorant: certum autem eſt, vel ex Hiſpanijs, vel ex America habuiſſe. (p. lxxx)
He [de Sivry] wrote that he had received it from a certain friend of the Papal Legate in Belgium under the name of Taratouffli.
The Italians do not know whence they first obtained it, but it is certain that they got it either from Spain or America. (tr. Salaman)
Note that Salaman, following Roze, fails to translate “in the preceding year.” So, we actually know just when (1587) this plant arrived in Mons, Belgium. As for how potatoes came to Italy, a hint comes from Father Magazzini of Vallombrosa, in his posthumous 1625 Coltivazione Toscana, for how, but not when:
Si piantano in buon terreno frescoe, umido le Patate, portate nuovamente qua di Spagna, e Portogallo, dalli R[everendi] P[adri] Carmelitani Scalzi, come si piantano gli Uovoli di Canne … (here similarly here)
They plant in good fresh land, the moist potatoes, newly brought from Spain and Portugal, by the barefoot Carmelite Brothers, as they plant cane shoots …
John Parkinson marks the transition from herbals to botanical works. His Paradisi in paradisus terrestris : a garden of all sorts (1629) described potatoes in The Kitchen Garden (Chap. XLIX), along with sweet potatoes (“The Spanish kind”) and Jerusalem artichokes (“Potatos of Canada”).
The Potatoes of Virginia, which ſome fooliſhly call the Apples of youth, is another kinde of plant, differing much from the former, ſauing in the colour and taſte of the roote, … (p. 516)
A claim for the first potato cookbook can reasonably be made for John Forster's 1664 Englands happiness increased, or, A sure and easie remedy against all succeeding dear years by a plantation of the roots called potatoes, …, which in addition to economic arguments, gives recipes for bread, pastry, pudding, custard, cheesecake, and cakes. There is a scan in EEBO and a modern transcription here.
For the words for potatoes in various languages, there are the usual sources, like the M.M.P.N.D., Wiktionary, Webster's Online Dictionary and Logos Dictionary. Salaman's Chapter VIII: Names and Aliases is 16 pages long. There are even specific potato naming pages, like Die 1001 Namen der Kartoffel (part of a larger potato history site). So rather than attempting to list them all, I will try to give some sense of the major themes and principles involved.
Spanish batata / patata and English potato give rise to words all over, such as Basque patata, Italian patata, dialectical French patate, Swedish potatis, Norwegian potet, Greek πατάτα, Turkish patates, some also covering sweet potatoes. It is shorted to Welsh taten and Irish práta (among other things; see here). In Gaelic, an n slips into buntàta, as though it were from bun 'root'; this idea is then carried to a complete folk-etymology from bun-taghta 'choice root' (tagh 'choose').
gurabé an bodaċ
buanna an ḃata
ar a ċaile
faoi na maluinn;
ria no pósaḋ :— (Duanaire Dháibhidh Uí Bhruadair, Part II, p. 66; text also here)
For he is a bodach [churl]
Who wieldeth a cudgel
And strikes with his clenched fist
His wife and companion
Under her eyebrow;
Whereas it was kisses,
Pronocum [primness], potatoes,
That used to salute her,
Before they were married :— (tr. John C. McErlean)
Maltese is patata. Wehr does not suggest any overlap between the lemmata بطاطا baṭāṭā 'sweet potato; yam' and بطاطس baṭāṭis 'potatoes' (from the Spanish plural). But Google Image search seems to show that it is more complicated: there are uses of بطاطا baṭāṭā for potatoes as well. Lameen at Jabal al-Lughat says that in Algeria it is باطاطة bāṭāṭa 'potato', with باطاطة حلوّة bāṭāṭa ḥluwwa for the rare occasions where 'sweet potato' is needed (just like in English or French patate douce; from the closely related word حلاوة ḥalāwa, by way of Turkish, comes halva).
As indicated above, early Spanish encounters suggested truffles and in Italy, the other place in Europe to which they came early on, they were known by various forms of tartufolo 'truffle', from Latin terrae-tuber 'earth tuber'. The French cartoufle did not last, but German Kartoffel did, winning out over, among other things, the more Teutonic Grüblingsbaum 'truffle-tree'. This became the basis for another large set of borrowings: Danish kartoffel, Estonian kartul, Latvian kartupeļi, even Icelandic kartafla; Russian картофель, Georgian კარტოფილი kartopili, Armenian կարտոֆիլ kartofil.
Apple is the default fruit when making compounds to explain new ones. So French pomme de terre 'earth apple' was originally applied to Jerusalem artichokes, then potatoes as well, which is now all it means. German Erdapfel is not standard any more, but it gave Upper Sorbian depla. Dutch still has aardappel, and there is Swiss German Härdöpfel. Faeroese has the similar jørðepli. On the other hand, recall from an earlier post that Old English eorþ-æppel is 'cucumber'. Esperanto chose terpomo and Modern Hebrew תפוח אדמה tapuaḥ adamah. An alternative in Modern Greek is γεώμηλο. From the Dutch comes Sinhala අර්භාපල් artopḷ.
In Persian, too, 'potato' is سیب زمینی seb zamīnī 'earth apple'. However, older dictionaries, such as Wollaston and Steingass, also list variations on آلوئی مالکم ālū-i malqalm 'Malcolm's plum'. John Malcolm was ambassador to the Persian court at the turn of the 19th century. He claims to have introduced the potato to Persia. This claim is rebutted by his successor, Harford Jones Brydges, and re-claimed by Malcolm in his memoirs. It probably didn't help that Malcolm was a Scotsman and Jones a Welshman, and that they were rivals in addressing the problem of the Shah's alternate appeals to British India and Napoleon for aid against Russia. Berthold Laufer (the Sinologist) in the posthumous The American Plant Migration ; Part 1 : The Potato does include (p. 88) Malcolm's claim with a reference to the first work. The related word الوچه alūčha is some other kind of plum (maybe a Damson).
A cognate of Persian plums is Sanskrit आलुक āluka, Amorphophallus paeoniifolius, the elephant yam. The root word आलु ālu is not actually attested, but is assumed to refer to this or some other edible tuber. In many modern languages, this has become the word for 'potato': Hindi आलू ālū, Punjabi ਆਲੂ, Oriya ଆଲୂ, Bengali আলু or গোল আলু gol ālu 'round tuber', Telugu ఆలుగడ్డ ālugaḍḍa 'crumbling tuber'. (Though in Western India it is Marathi बटाटा and Gujarati બટાટા baṭāṭā.) It is just possible that this root is related to words discussed in the garlic post, either Latin allium or Tamil உள்ளி uḷḷi 'onion'. 'Potato' is Tamil உருளைக்கிழங்கு uruḷaikkiẕangku, Malayalam ഉരുളക്കിഴങ്ങ് uruḷakkiḻaṅṅ, from uruḷai-k-kiḻaṅku 'rolling root'.
Along the same lines as pomme de terre 'earth apple' was poire de terre 'earth pear', which also referred to Jerusalem artichoke, and now means 'yacón'. The German Erdbirne meant 'potato'. It is no longer standard, but did give Upper Sorbian bĕrna. Likewise Swedish jordpäron, which gave Finnish peruna, which by coincidence looks like it might have something to do with Peru; in fact, the Peruvian Embassy is not above exploiting this. Another older German dialect form, Grundbirne 'ground pear' gave Croatian krompir / Serbian кромпир and Hungarian krumpli.
Another Hungarian 'potato' word, burgonya is from French Bourgogne 'Burgundy', considered as the source. Likewise the Czech brambor from Brandenburg. On the other hand, Czech zemče, Slovak zemiak, and Polish ziemniak are from zem 'earth' and just mean 'something from the ground'. Polish bulwa, Byelorussian бульба, and Lithuanian bulvė are from Latin bulbus 'bulb'. Upper Sorbian buna is from German Bohne 'bean'. In addition to the botanical sense of 'caruncle', German Karunkel was a dialectal word for 'potato' and gave Slovenian (which also has krompir) korun.
In Chinese, 'potato' is 馬鈴薯 ma3ling2shu3 'horse bell yam', evidently because of its shape: the first record of potatoes in Chinese is from the Songxi County Gazetteer (松溪縣志 song1xi1 xian4 zhi4) from 1700:
ma3ling2shu3 cai4 yi1 shu4 sheng1 jue2 qu3 zhi1 xing2 you3 xiao3 da4 lüe4 ru2 ling2 zi3 se4 hei1 er2 yuan2 wei4 ku3 gan1
Horse's-bell yam: a vegetable which grows near trees and must be dug up. In appearance it is somewhat like a bell, and there are both little and big ones. It is dark and round, and of a bitter-sweet taste. (tr. Wilbur in Laufer p. 71)
In other areas, it is 土豆 tu3dou4 'earth bean', which is one of those words that shows up on lists of differences in Taiwan, where that evidently means 'peanut', 花生 hua1sheng1 on the Mainland. Since potatoes are not native, nor particularly popular, they are also known as 洋芋 yang2yü4 'foreign taro' or 洋山芋 yang2shan1yü4 'foreign sweet potato'. Likewise Thai มันฝรั่ง man fà-ràng 'foreign sweet potato', Swahili kiazi cha kizungu 'European sweet potato', and at some time early on in its introduction, Arabic قلقاس فرنجة qolqas ferenji 'Frankish colocasia'.
In Japanese, it is also 馬鈴薯 bareisho. More commonly, it is ジャガ芋 jaga-imo, short for the older 咬𠺕吧薯 jagatara imo 'Jakarta yam' (if your browser does not display the second character, it is U+20E95 口留 — that is how you will find it elsewhere online). Similarly, there was also 和蘭薯 oranda imo 'Holland yam', since potatoes were introduced to Japan from the Dutch East Indies. All tubers are 芋 imo and some of them were covered in the Iron Chef post. Tubers have the same reputation in Japanese culture as beans (or cabbage) in American. Here (from here) is an ukiyo-e painting by Kuniyoshi (国芳) of a fart battle (maybe from a series, He-no-yōna dōke he-zukushi = 屁のような どうけ 屁尽 'Likenesses of the fart in a series of comic farts', based on the only reference work at hand); notice how everyone is munching yams. Similarly, on this list, numbers 37, 38, and 39 (h/t this post from No-sword on the Potato-Octopus Battle), everyone has tubers. Note in particular #37, 屁合戦兵粮之図 he kasen hiyōrō kore zu 'fart battle provisions', a diptich, on the right, where someone is blowing out a candle, a fairly common gag in these paintings. Such a drawing inspired 愚佛 Gubutsu 'dumb Buddha' to write the following kyōshi (狂詩 'wild poetry'), a humorous form of kanshi (漢詩), Japanese poetry written in Chinese:
This article translates the same poem with 芋 imo as 'beans', adding a footnote glossing it 'potato'. Since transliterating the original is problematic, here is the kanbun from the same book and a transliteration of that. (You may need a Firefox extension for rubies to display properly; I avoided anything more advanced than IE supports.)
明晚十分喰芋來 (五山文學集. 江戶漢詩集 Gozan bungaku shū. Edo kanshi shū p.379)
In Praise of a Picture of Someone Extinguishing a
Lantern Light by Breaking Wind
Pssss! Pssss! Pssss! Pssss!—his bottom's open wide!
An onlooker meanwhile holds his nose, and then he laughs out loud.
Bowels out of gas, their force now lost; that flame's so hard to put out!
Tomorrow night he'll eat plenty of yams, and then he'll try again! (tr. Bradstock & Rabinovitch)
屁を 放つて 行 燈を 滅すの圖に讚す 諷諷 騶騶と 屁 穴開けば
撮んで 吹き出して 咍ふ
減り 息は弱り 甚だ 滅し 難ければ
芋を 喰つて 來んと
he o hi tsute an don o
ke su no zu ni san su
fū fū sū sū to he ana akeba
kenbutsu wa hana o tsumande fukidashite warafu
hara wa he ri iki wa yowari hanahada keshi gatakereba
miyōban wa jiyūbun ni imo o kuratsute kurunto
The problem of potatoes causing gas is not uniquely perceived by the Japanese, of course. Of the sweet potato Gerard says, “… whose nutriment is as it were a meane betweene flesh and fruit, but somwhat windie; …” He is echoing Nicolás Monardes, Ioyfull newes out of the newfound world (1580):
The Batatas, which is a common fruite in those Countries, I take for a vittayle of muche Substaunce, and that they are in the middest betweene fleshe and Fruite. Trueth it is, that they be wyndie, but that is taken from them by rosting, chiefly if they bee put into fine Wyne: (Fol. 104)
Gerard implies that the characteristics of the “Virginia potato” are the same as the “common potato,”
The temperature and vertues be referred vnto the common Potatoes, being likewise a food, as also a meate for pleasure, equall in goodnesse and wholesomenesse vnto the same, …
Robert Burton, considering the effects of diet on depression in his Anatomy of Melancholy, is mostly down on vegetables, including roots, because of gas. But potatoes may be okay. At this time (1621), it is difficult to be sure whether potatoes or sweet potatoes are intended.
Roots, Etſi quorundam gentium opes ſint, ſaith Bruerinus, the wealth of ſome countries and ſole food, are windy & bad, or troubleſome to the head; as Onions, Garlicke, Scallions, Turneps, Carrets, Radiſhes, Parſnips; Crato lib. 2. conſil. 11. diſallowes all roots, though ſome approue of Parſnipps, & Potatoes. (p. 91; modernized)
Nor are the two characteristics imputed to potatoes in conflict. Clusius says,
flatuentas tamen eſſe propterea, ad proritandum Venerem, nonullos uti (p. lxxxi)
Nevertheless they are flatulent, and therefore some use them for exciting Venus. (tr. Salaman)
Mongolian төмс, Classical Mongolian ᠲᠥᠮᠤᠰᠤᠨ tömüsün, is evidently from a native tuber root.
Older and larger Tibetan dictionaries list སྐྱི་བ་ skyi-ba, which also covers 'yam', and རྒྱ་གྲོ་མ་ rgya-gro-ma 'India sweet potato', from གྲོ་མ་ gro-ma 'sweet potato; Potentilla anserina'. Modern ones have ཞོ་གོག་ zho-gog. This matches what I see in local restaurant (three in Cambridge / Somerville, one in Northampton) menus, where it is spelled Shogo or Shoko. One particular favorite dish is Shoko Khatsa, curried potatoes, which some places serve with Tingmo, Tibetan steamed bread. ཁ་ཚ་ kha-tsha 'hot mouth' is 'spicy' or 'hot sauce'. Khatsa is a mail-order Tibetan hot sauce company. Their extra-hot version is called Kuptsa རྐུབ་ཚ་ rkub-tsha 'hot butt'. It is important to have a stock of this in the fridge for when the take-out Momo order is accidentally missing the hot sauce.
Australia has unique native foods, which Europeans termed bush tucker. These include some tubers. Our small collection of Australian Aboriginal paintings includes one by Roy Jupurrula Curtis, one of the founding Warlukurlangu Artists from Yuendumu, Northern Territory. (Sotheby's annual Melbourne sale is one of the few that we care about that happens during our Northern Hemisphere summer; in fact, it was earlier this week.) In Warlpiri, it is titled Ngarlajiyi – Yarla. Ngarlajiyi (ngarlatjiya, also ngalatji) is the bush carrot or pencil yam, Vigna lanceolata (the same genus as mung and azuki beans, urad dal and black-eyed peas). Yarla (also yala) is the bush potato, Ipomoea costata (the same genus as sweet potatoes). The smaller bush carrot grows in creek beds, the larger bush potato in the desert. Here is another painting with a similar theme. I only have a small Warlpiri dictionary. Potato itself is borrowed as pertirte into Arrernte and purturti into Ngaanyatjarra / Ngaatjatjarra. Kirrkirr is a project to produce a complete and technically innovative online Warlpiri dictionary. Unfortunately, access to the database (i.e., the dictionary proper) is restricted, due to concerns for indigenous intellectual property. I confess that I do not understand this, and I do not mean that as a euphemism for disagree or disrespect. I would love to see a study of intellectual property in traditional societies that covered this, Mapuche ownership of Mapuzugun, hereditary naming rights, Potlatch ceremonies, and so on. I suppose such a thing is just as likely to appear in a law journal as an anthropology one.
In Bernardino de Sahagún's 1569 Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, written in Nahuatl with Spanish translations and known as the Florentine Codex, in Book 10, describing various professions, is Suchiqualpan tlacatl 'The man with the fruit' (Chap. 22). His wares include some root vegetables (p. 79 of the translation; equivalent snippet):
chaiotli, camotli, xicama, quauhcamotli, tlalcamotli, tolcimatl, cacomitl, cacapxon
That is, chayohtli, camohtli, xīcama, cuauhcamohtli, tlālcamohtli, tōlcīmatl, cacomitl, cacapxon. The first three have been borrowed into Spanish and English: chayote; camote, that is, sweet potato; and jícama. Cuauhcamohtli and tlālcamohtli mean 'wild sweet potato' and 'earth sweet potato'; the former has been identified as manioc. tolcimatl means 'reed root'. Cacomite comes into Spanish for Tigridia pavonia. And cacapxon is unidentified (but described elsewhere as qujnenevilia in xicama 'it resembles the xīcama'). Tlālcamohtli, the 'earth sweet potato', might have been 'potato' in the classical language. That is, in fact, the word used by the Nahuatl Wikipedia. The entry is, sadly, otherwise content free. Still, I assume it really is used in the modern language. Nevertheless, this online dictionary gives it the other way around: camohtli for 'potato' and tlalcamohtli for 'sweet potato'. Karttunen lists 'sweet potato' for both camohtli and tlālcamohtli, referencing Key and Key for the latter. The little Hippocrene dictionary gives papas for 'potato', suggesting the need to borrow a word.
Finally, Google Books has a treasure trove of 19th century papers on the history of potatoes by various learned men and societies. Most have been superseded in terms of their actual science, and so don't add to the sources cited above. But they still make for entertaining reading. For instance:
- Joseph Banks
- Société de pharmacie de Paris
- Belfast Natural History Society
- Academia Rheno-trajectina
- Gardener's Monthly
- Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire
- Alphonse de Candolle (translation)
- The Antiquary
- Missions belges de la Compagnie de Jésus
- Bristol Naturalists' Society
- Dublin Review
- Royal Horticultural Society
- Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, etc.
- Société nationale d'horticulture de France