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Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent

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The potato—humble, lumpy, bland, familiar—is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Reader’s narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber. From domestication in Peru 8,000 years ago to its status today as the world’s fourth largest food crop, the potato has played a starring—or at The potato—humble, lumpy, bland, familiar—is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Reader’s narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber. From domestication in Peru 8,000 years ago to its status today as the world’s fourth largest food crop, the potato has played a starring—or at least supporting—role in many chapters of human history. In this witty and engaging book, Reader opens our eyes to the power of the potato. Whether embraced as the solution to hunger or wielded as a weapon of exploitation, blamed for famine and death or recognized for spurring progress, the potato has often changed the course of human events. Reader focuses on sixteenth-century South America, where the indigenous potato enabled Spanish conquerors to feed thousands of conscripted native people; eighteenth-century Europe, where the nutrition-packed potato brought about a population explosion; and today’s global world, where the potato is an essential food source but also the world’s most chemically-dependent crop. Where potatoes have been adopted as a staple food, social change has always followed. It may be “just” a humble vegetable, John Reader shows, yet the history of the potato has been anything but dull.


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The potato—humble, lumpy, bland, familiar—is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Reader’s narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber. From domestication in Peru 8,000 years ago to its status today as the world’s fourth largest food crop, the potato has played a starring—or at The potato—humble, lumpy, bland, familiar—is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Reader’s narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber. From domestication in Peru 8,000 years ago to its status today as the world’s fourth largest food crop, the potato has played a starring—or at least supporting—role in many chapters of human history. In this witty and engaging book, Reader opens our eyes to the power of the potato. Whether embraced as the solution to hunger or wielded as a weapon of exploitation, blamed for famine and death or recognized for spurring progress, the potato has often changed the course of human events. Reader focuses on sixteenth-century South America, where the indigenous potato enabled Spanish conquerors to feed thousands of conscripted native people; eighteenth-century Europe, where the nutrition-packed potato brought about a population explosion; and today’s global world, where the potato is an essential food source but also the world’s most chemically-dependent crop. Where potatoes have been adopted as a staple food, social change has always followed. It may be “just” a humble vegetable, John Reader shows, yet the history of the potato has been anything but dull.

30 review for Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    As a popular history, this book has good points. While most directly a history of the potato, it really uses the potato as the central element around which it constructs a story about what happened in various bits of human history. Sometimes the discussion seems to veer far away from what was happening to (or with) potatoes, but always comes back. As a great yarn about the past, this works quite well, albeit a bit haphazard. Reader has a central thesis about the potato, that its superior provisio As a popular history, this book has good points. While most directly a history of the potato, it really uses the potato as the central element around which it constructs a story about what happened in various bits of human history. Sometimes the discussion seems to veer far away from what was happening to (or with) potatoes, but always comes back. As a great yarn about the past, this works quite well, albeit a bit haphazard. Reader has a central thesis about the potato, that its superior provision of nutrients per farmed hectare (compared to most other crops) has had a vital role in the increasing population of the world, with all sorts of flow-on economic and political effects, which is interesting and worth consideration. He traces this through the Industrial Revolution in England, the Irish famine, to the recent growth in population in Papua New Guinea and the exploding commercial success of Chinese potato growers. At times it seems he is attributing too much to the potato, and I guess this kind of history telling is as perilous (for its tendency to inaccuracy by exaggeration or omission) as it is enjoyable. Reader's telling of history seems to owe more than a little to left-wing historians, for example he discusses Engels' views on the English working-class at some length, but he appears to employ some level of class analysis in his telling. So I was surprised to find the story was not just about the potato, but about the evils of communism and idealism. The Soviet scientist Vavilov, who developed a large potato breeding centre in the USSR until his sad demise in one of Stalin's purges, is introduced with some decidedly odd comments about Soviet history. Apparently the 1921 famine, coming on the end of four years of bitter civil war (after as many years of the catastrophic world war) was due to "the wilful determination of the Soviets to put the survival of their new political order before that of the people". There is a 1977 article from the journal "Soviet Studies" referenced(1) but it seems that Reader's pithy summary is (at best) a dire oversimplification. He goes on to state that "most of the country's specialists had either emigrated or perished in the aftermath of the revolution (when higher learning was deemed to be a bourgeois threat)" -- this time unreferenced; all I've read of the Soviet sciences suggests that specialists in the old order tended to (not surprisingly) distrust the introduction of a new order and left, or took the other side; but I have read elsewhere(2) of younger, less ensconced scientists who were happy enough to work in the promising new Soviet system (Vavilov just one among them). Finally one gets to the end and the anti-communist thrust of the latter chapters of the book is made clear. George Bernard Shaw's (in)famous comment "If at age 20 you are not a Communist then you have no heart. If at age 30 you are not a Capitalist then you have no brains" is used as a metaphor for the changes in China since the demise of Mao, and the fortunes of the potato in this period when China has become the world's biggest producer. "...not only peasant farmers are inherent capitalists - we all are" says this photojournalist with an Honorary Research Fellowship in Anthropology at UCL. Rather a big claim to make, unannounced, on the final page of a long book - unless you're just preaching to the converted. Despite this ending on a superficial and poorly researched note of moralistic anticommunism, the earlier sections of the book are an interesting and enjoyable read. Like when you discover a rotten spot in an apple and wonder if you've already eaten more of the same without noticing, I do wonder if any comparable biases are present in those earlier chapters that I enjoyed more. I also wonder what was the political ramifications and machinations of potato cropping were in the (capitalist) US' plantation-slave and Jim Crow sharecropping economies (not mentioned), or the rise of the (capitalist) agrobusiness giants McCain and Simplot (barely touched on, in a rather rosy light, right at the end) (3); or how potatoes were conceived in (capitalist) Nazi Germany and the ghettos and concentration camps where its victims perished (potatoes being an important food throughout central and eastern Europe). It focuses instead on the fortunes of the potato in the troubled Communist camp and a chapter on a recent adopter, PNG - a poor third world country. Whereas the communists were bad and had to learn the error of their ways for themselves, the poor PNG farmers are good because they let the liberal world help them. That seems to be the narrative it ends on. Disappointing. (1) Charles M. Edmondson (1977) The politics of hunger: The Soviet response to famine, 1921, Soviet Studies, 29:4, 506-518, DOI: 10.1080/09668137708411152 (2) Models Of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. Douglas R. Wiener, University of Pittsburgh, updated edition 2000. (3) I worked at a Simplot-owned factory for a few years, was a union delegate there, and their record as an exploitative multinational capitalist firm with large vertically integrated operations in food production around the world surely deserves more scrutiny for its impact on labour and environment than the rosy vignette Reader sketches of the original Simplot success story, which may as well have been lifted from the company's own promotional material.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Richard Reese

    The wild potato is a masterpiece of evolution. Botanists have discovered 169 species of them, widely dispersed across the Americas, but primarily located in the Andes. Wild spuds have been able to adapt to every type of ecosystem except for lowland tropical rainforest. Their foliage is bitter with toxic glycoalkaloid compounds that promptly spoil the appetite of hungry leaf munchers (or kills them). Beneath the ground, small tubers grow on the roots, in a wide variety of colors and shapes. The to The wild potato is a masterpiece of evolution. Botanists have discovered 169 species of them, widely dispersed across the Americas, but primarily located in the Andes. Wild spuds have been able to adapt to every type of ecosystem except for lowland tropical rainforest. Their foliage is bitter with toxic glycoalkaloid compounds that promptly spoil the appetite of hungry leaf munchers (or kills them). Beneath the ground, small tubers grow on the roots, in a wide variety of colors and shapes. The toxic tubers store energy and moisture as insurance against unfavorable conditions. As they mature, the plants flower, and then produce tomato-like fruits containing up to 200 seeds. Because the seeds are the result of sexual reproduction, each one is genetically unique. Some will be resistant to frost, and/or drought, and/or blight. Wherever they happen to grow, plants having the most suitable genes for local conditions will be the most likely to thrive and reproduce. Diverse genes are essential for a species long-term survival. Wild spuds are not the slightest bit interested in sprawling agribusiness monocultures, cancerous civilizations, population explosions, fungicide industries, or topsoil destruction. They simply find ways to blend into their ecosystem, live well, and not rock the boat, like all proper and dignified organisms do. After consuming several tons of domesticated spuds over many decades, John Reader was inspired to write Potato, a highly readable book that described the amazing success of the humble spud, and the astonishing unintended consequences. It adds one more chapter to the ongoing comedy of backfiring human cleverness. Nobody has come up with a compelling explanation for why humans domesticated toxic little tubers, but we did. Some of the myriad mutants resulting from wild potato sex must have produced tubers with low toxicity that tickled the imagination of somewhat-clever minds. Domesticated tubers are much larger than wild ones, and much better tasting. When the plants stop growing, and the foliage withers, the tubers are no longer poisonous. An acre of spuds can produce as much food as eight acres of wheat — in much less time. Spuds are now our fourth most common food, following wheat, corn, and rice. They are remarkably nutritious. You can eat nothing but spuds for several months and remain healthy. If you add a glass of milk to every meal, you will be completely nourished — this was the Irish peasant’s diet 200 years ago. The average adult male ate 10 pounds of spuds daily, and 20 when working hard. Seriously! Potatoes can thrive where grains don’t, and they can be stored for months. Long ago, the people of the Andes learned how to make chuño — freeze-dried potatoes, which can be stored for years, while losing no nutritional value. Sweet potatoes are not related to potatoes, and they spoil far more quickly. Prior to the arrival of potatoes, European peasants were typically malnourished and short-lived. But spud-gobbling bumpkins were more healthy and vigorous, despite their extreme poverty. Potato-fed kids were more likely to survive into adulthood and reproduce. Infants could be weaned earlier by switching them to a mix of mashed potatoes and buttermilk, allowing mom to get pregnant again sooner, and have more children. When potatoes arrived in Ireland around 1600, the population was no more than 1.5 million. By 1845, it was 8.5 million, of which 90 percent were hardcore spud addicts. This explosive growth could not continue, of course. I shall now introduce the arch villain in this story: Phytophthora infestans, a fungus commonly referred to as “late blight.” It probably originated in the highlands of central Mexico, and then migrated to other regions. Today it can be found almost everywhere, and wet weather is its call to action. Blight spores can ride the winds to new locations. Nothing gives it greater pleasure than discovering a big field of moist mature potato plants. In 1845, spores from the US took a steam ship cruise to Ireland, where everyone was eagerly expecting a bumper crop of lumpers. To their horror, entire fields turned black overnight. Blight raced across Europe, destroying two million square kilometers in four months. It struck again in 1846 and 1848. Ireland was hit hardest, and their wretched British overlords could not be bothered to provide much assistance. A million Irish died, and a million emigrated. I shall now introduce the hapless victim in this story: Solanum tuberosum, the family of domesticated taters. In the process of being transformed from wild toxic tubers to an incredibly productive super food, domestic spuds lost most of their sex drive (via male sterility). Few produce any fruits or seeds. So, commercial American potatoes are not grown from “true seeds.” Instead, farmers plant “seed tubers,” which are hunks of tubers from the last harvest. True seeds are rugged survivalists, because they are genetically diverse. But domesticated potatoes are helpless sitting ducks, because they are genetically identical clones. If one is susceptible to blight, they all are. Reader says, “In fact, most modern cultivars are biological ‘monsters’ that could not survive in the wild.” They can’t live without human caretakers (like domesticated dogs, cattle, sheep, and maize). Scientists have two control options. The cheapest solution is to breed new varieties that are blight resistant, but this is a time-consuming process, and there are only a limited number of gene tricks that work. The success of any new variety can only be temporary, because the blight fungus is constantly mutating. Blight will inevitably create offspring that can overcome the resistant spud’s defenses, and each new blight spore can produce 100,000 spores in four days. The scientists will have to start all over again. The other solution is more expensive and toxic: fungicides. In wet seasons, a field might be sprayed 12 times (or 30 times in super-moist New Guinea). Like plant breeding, the effectiveness of fungicides is temporary, because the fungus will inevitably develop resistance to them. When one poison stops working, you switch to another, use more, or try combos. There can be no permanent solution to blight. Scientists will run out of clever tricks long before Mother Nature quits producing countless new fungus mutants every minute. Rising energy costs will continue to drive up the price of fungicides, making them unaffordable for a growing number of poor farmers. Wild spuds still thrive in the high Andes, preserving the wild gene pool that’s essential to the work of plant breeders. Blight has never been a problem in this region — until recently. Climate change has been making the weather warmer and wetter in the homeland of spuds. Some crops of native potatoes have been heavily damaged. The venerable historian William H. McNeill once penned an essay titled “How the Potato Changed the World's History.” Europe’s population skyrocketed between 1750 and 1900, thanks in part to the spud. Millions of surplus country folks were forced to move to cities, work in factories, earn peanuts, and live on taters. Thus, spuds played a significant role in the mass emigration of Europeans, the growth of colonial empires, and the rise of Russia and Germany as industrial powers. Reader lamented that “millions [of] lives were spent as fuel for the Industrial Revolution,” but in its wake, “a new and better world emerged.” Really? I have a feeling that it would have been wiser to leave the spuds as we found them — wild, free, and happy. This book has many, many more spud tales to tell. Throw some French fries in the microwave and find a comfy chair.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Charlene

    When I listened to Turning Points in Modern History by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, I was really taken with his surprising and delicious history of the potato. I had no idea how important the potato was in building human civilization. That lecture series caused me to seek out this book. In the past I have enjoyed reading about the history of coal (I recommend Barbara Freese's wonderfully rich history), uranium, and other single subjects that appear to have the potential to be boring but end up be When I listened to Turning Points in Modern History by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, I was really taken with his surprising and delicious history of the potato. I had no idea how important the potato was in building human civilization. That lecture series caused me to seek out this book. In the past I have enjoyed reading about the history of coal (I recommend Barbara Freese's wonderfully rich history), uranium, and other single subjects that appear to have the potential to be boring but end up being anything but boring. It is the love for this type of history that led me to the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky, which I found a bit boring. I worried the history of the potato might be boring as well, but this book is great. You can expect to read about how in Shakespeare's time fewer than 70 out of every baby born made it to their first birthday, only 48 to their 5th birthday, and only about 25 were still alive to see their birthday. The potato changed all of that..... except when potato growing met with difficulties. You will learn about what kind of food the rich and poor alike had access to and how the potato sustained entire populations of people to continue the progress of civilization. You will learn that the potato was viewed in much the same way we often view new tech, the work of the devil, a demoralize esculent to be exact. Such a threat was the potato, clergymen and priests banned their parishioners from eating it. You can also expect to enjoy a wonderful history not only the Irish Potato Famine but the extremely interesting consequences of the famine on Irish culture. The author also provided a great discussion on breeding potato seeds to end world hunger and what needs to be done to make potato planting in various parts of the world successful. Great book!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Trinity Benstock

    Last two chapters were abysmal. The last two paragraphs were criminal. Really ruined the rest of the work, which I do think is one of the better examples of this trite genres. Tis what one ought to expect from a photojournalist and pseudo anthropologist (same mess, different names)!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kumar

    Reader's history of the potato is straightforward and unironic, and all the better for it. He excels at painting vignettes of how societies shape themselves and come into conflict around the crop, and resists giving it a character of its own. He is best when dealing with the potato in its South American origins, the colonial conditions of its travels, and the tremendous influence it had on ordinary peasant life in Europe. He falters somewhat with profiles of scientists and botanists that seem a Reader's history of the potato is straightforward and unironic, and all the better for it. He excels at painting vignettes of how societies shape themselves and come into conflict around the crop, and resists giving it a character of its own. He is best when dealing with the potato in its South American origins, the colonial conditions of its travels, and the tremendous influence it had on ordinary peasant life in Europe. He falters somewhat with profiles of scientists and botanists that seem a little dry and global economics of the contemporary period, but is still in those sections readable if not as thoroughly compelling.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Allysia K

    Good enough to finish, but not so good that I finished it quickly. I had a few lucid "why am I reading a book about potatoes" moments. To which there's not an answer - just that I got curious about potatoes, kind of like when you have a random question and then spend an hour on Wikipedia. But with a book. Anyway, some of it was quite interesting, and I'd even go so far as to say I learned a thing or two (Potatoes came from South America! They don't have seeds, and propagate via cloning!). But some Good enough to finish, but not so good that I finished it quickly. I had a few lucid "why am I reading a book about potatoes" moments. To which there's not an answer - just that I got curious about potatoes, kind of like when you have a random question and then spend an hour on Wikipedia. But with a book. Anyway, some of it was quite interesting, and I'd even go so far as to say I learned a thing or two (Potatoes came from South America! They don't have seeds, and propagate via cloning!). But some of it I admittedly skim-read. I give it a positive "meh". I'm probably not the right target audience for this book, so I'm sure it's better if you're a truer potato connoisseur.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Taylor

    Did you know that my favorite food is the potato? For as long as I can remember. I grew up eating potatoes mashed and covered in butter almost every night for my entire childhood. If I see mashed potatoes on a menu, I cannot ever say no. Poutine is one of Canada's greatest inventions: cheese, gravy, and that wonderfully deep fried, starchy, tuber. Dill and heavy cream with potatoes; stuffed in perogies; eaten with breakfast. This is the most versatile esculent that has ever existed. And so John Did you know that my favorite food is the potato? For as long as I can remember. I grew up eating potatoes mashed and covered in butter almost every night for my entire childhood. If I see mashed potatoes on a menu, I cannot ever say no. Poutine is one of Canada's greatest inventions: cheese, gravy, and that wonderfully deep fried, starchy, tuber. Dill and heavy cream with potatoes; stuffed in perogies; eaten with breakfast. This is the most versatile esculent that has ever existed. And so John Reader proves that in his very interesting account of "The Potato in World History". Now, let's clarify something. When I was reading this, I kept telling anyone who would listen, "I am reading a book about the history OF the potato." This is wrong. Propitious Esculent is *not* about the history of the potato. We do not follow the potato through birth, its tribulations into contemporary times. Rather, we follow how the potato has aided and shaped mankind into what it is today. (There is another review that gives the book a low rating for this reason, claiming they did not want to read about the potato -- because that's all the book ended up being-- well, what did you expect?) Reader has traced the potato from its origins in the Andes and how it was used and valued by the indigenous and colonialists there, to its affects on European lower classes, into its popularity of a staple food. He tells us what the potato is , scientifically; and yet, with all of its value and benefit, how it remains one of the most delicate, precariously balanced pieces of vegetation that the Mother Earth and evolution has ever cultivated into existence. I love this book for how it highlights the "adventures" of something that is so overlooked by us today because it is so widely available. How many people look at their food and wonder where it comes from? Could guess that so simple-a-thing could have affected us all in such unnoticed, yet important ways. Now, when I look at the potato, I not only love it for its texture, its taste, nor its versatility, I quietly thank the potato for having saved my Ukrainian family and for making me and keeping me very healthy. Now everyone: buy some farm fresh, golden potatoes, cook them to perfection, and eat.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Angelique Simonsen

    I never knew the potato was so interesting nor how it helped fuel the industrial revolution

  9. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    This was an interesting read about the famous potato, now so much a part of our lives, it wasn't always so. I knew much of this history already, but Reader goes into a depth I haven't seen. Like other works, such as Salt, Cod, Spice, etc, the authors use the subject at hand as a medium by which history can be traced and explored. It's always an interesting avenue to explore, and in our case tracing the potato from its roots (ha) to the modern age. This tuber is incredibly important, and is respo This was an interesting read about the famous potato, now so much a part of our lives, it wasn't always so. I knew much of this history already, but Reader goes into a depth I haven't seen. Like other works, such as Salt, Cod, Spice, etc, the authors use the subject at hand as a medium by which history can be traced and explored. It's always an interesting avenue to explore, and in our case tracing the potato from its roots (ha) to the modern age. This tuber is incredibly important, and is responsible for feeding millions that would have otherwise starved or not been born to begin with. We all have to thank God for the potato, which for many was just what they needed, when they needed it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Elyse Bouvier

    Very enjoyable history of the potato and all it has touched.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth F

    So far, a tour-de-force of history of politics, social history, botany...I'm not through yet!! Finished this today, 3/21/11. This is one of the best "popular" syntheses of history, botany, sociology that I have read. Mr Reader takes the lowly potato, which most of us do not give two seconds' thought to, from its origins in western South America, early domestication by indigenous peoples and export by Spanish explorers (too nice a word for how they treated, i.e., murdered the Incas and of course Az So far, a tour-de-force of history of politics, social history, botany...I'm not through yet!! Finished this today, 3/21/11. This is one of the best "popular" syntheses of history, botany, sociology that I have read. Mr Reader takes the lowly potato, which most of us do not give two seconds' thought to, from its origins in western South America, early domestication by indigenous peoples and export by Spanish explorers (too nice a word for how they treated, i.e., murdered the Incas and of course Aztecs/Mayans)to Europe, the slow adoption in Europe, how the easy cultivation and prolific production of the potato changed the health and fortune of Irish folks, how the vulnerability of the concentration of one variety of S tuberosa led to the Great Famine of 1845-1847 (as well its echo in China), as well as many other facets of the place of the potato in our current world economies. I highly recommend this book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    The attempt to link the potato to world history fails - the author fails to make the connections and explain the tangents into human history, and how they are connected to the potato. The potato gets lost. Plus, it is hard to stomach a history of Irish famine written by a British author.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Karen E Carter

    I was underwhelmed. Some interesting anecdotes, but I felt the author didn't really make much of a case for why the potato has had such an impact on the world. Made me hungry for potatos though. I was underwhelmed. Some interesting anecdotes, but I felt the author didn't really make much of a case for why the potato has had such an impact on the world. Made me hungry for potatos though.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    This was an interesting book with lots of information on the biology and history of the potato, but it lacked a central argument beyond, "the potato is important and lots of people eat it." This was an interesting book with lots of information on the biology and history of the potato, but it lacked a central argument beyond, "the potato is important and lots of people eat it."

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gregory

    This is much more than a book about the potato. It is a history book, a travel guide, a book on how economics, injustices and nation building have relied on the potato. It is a marvelous read, informative on many different topics. Before I came to Bolivia in 1974, I, like many other people thought that the potato came from Ireland. With over 150 varieties of potato in Bolivia, my perspective is a little different now and this book provided an amazing journey of this humble staple. One thing that This is much more than a book about the potato. It is a history book, a travel guide, a book on how economics, injustices and nation building have relied on the potato. It is a marvelous read, informative on many different topics. Before I came to Bolivia in 1974, I, like many other people thought that the potato came from Ireland. With over 150 varieties of potato in Bolivia, my perspective is a little different now and this book provided an amazing journey of this humble staple. One thing that is missing is how the potato arrived in India. When we lived there we were surprised to find it a part of most national dishes, like tomatoes and onions. We were even more surprised wen we found out that in the 1990s due to a sharp increase in the prices for potatoes and onions, there was a popular movement that toppled the government. Definitely, this is worth reading.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Marie Flanigan

    You might not think a book about the potato would be that interesting, but this was a really good read. The potato has had a tremendous impact on every country it's been introduced to. John Reader goes through the entire history of the potato and it's journey across the planet. He spends a significant amount of time on the Irish Potato famine, and the late blight, which was its cause. Late blight is still the most significant problem with raising potatoes and Reader addresses the various methods You might not think a book about the potato would be that interesting, but this was a really good read. The potato has had a tremendous impact on every country it's been introduced to. John Reader goes through the entire history of the potato and it's journey across the planet. He spends a significant amount of time on the Irish Potato famine, and the late blight, which was its cause. Late blight is still the most significant problem with raising potatoes and Reader addresses the various methods for dealing with blight, including genetic manipulation and spraying copper based fungicides. Because the potato is relatively easy to grow in a variety of soils and climates and is a complete food when you pair it with a little fat, it has tremendous value as a food source. It also has a fascinating history, well worth the read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Gary Miller

    I confess to a love of potatoes in all forms, hence my interest in the subject. I am surprised at how important a work, this is. This is not just a biography, but a history of the species. The potato is so intertwined with our own growth and development, John Reader's work is also an excellent explanation of our own history. The details and depth of this work is simply breathtaking. It makes one consider the political ramifications, our growth as a species and what, where, and how our own future I confess to a love of potatoes in all forms, hence my interest in the subject. I am surprised at how important a work, this is. This is not just a biography, but a history of the species. The potato is so intertwined with our own growth and development, John Reader's work is also an excellent explanation of our own history. The details and depth of this work is simply breathtaking. It makes one consider the political ramifications, our growth as a species and what, where, and how our own futures may develop. I was especially intrigued by the changes the potato made in Ireland, Papua New Guinea, and China. This book, or at least portions of it, should be required reading for economic, and history majors. This impressive book was also highly readable, interesting.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lacey

    The story of the potato through history truly is fascinating, and John Reader covers it thoroughly. My only complaint is the book is not very linear chronologically, which I prefer in a historical text. There is quite a bit of jumping back and forth in time that I personally found hard to follow. However, the book is packed with incredible examples of the potatoes impact on the world told in a way that is intersting. It was hard to put this book down. I definitely would recommend reading it to a The story of the potato through history truly is fascinating, and John Reader covers it thoroughly. My only complaint is the book is not very linear chronologically, which I prefer in a historical text. There is quite a bit of jumping back and forth in time that I personally found hard to follow. However, the book is packed with incredible examples of the potatoes impact on the world told in a way that is intersting. It was hard to put this book down. I definitely would recommend reading it to anyone.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Julian Walker

    An interesting journey through history with the humble potato as the main ingredient. Perhaps more on the historical than nutritional side, this is an interesting and educational read – chasing the use and influence of the tuber around the world. He also clinically dispels the myth that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the vegetable into Europe and gives a good understanding of the reasons why the potato blight in Ireland and other places was so devastating.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Hope

    A Book With A Fruit or Vegetable in the Title This is an excellent book in the subgenre of micro-history-- combining agriculture, economics, science, and history. Of course, the Irish Potato Famine features predominately- but also the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the commercialization of the potato and spread to China-- and the impact on the world economy. I loved this book-- and I don't think the average reader would find it boring. A Book With A Fruit or Vegetable in the Title This is an excellent book in the subgenre of micro-history-- combining agriculture, economics, science, and history. Of course, the Irish Potato Famine features predominately- but also the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the commercialization of the potato and spread to China-- and the impact on the world economy. I loved this book-- and I don't think the average reader would find it boring.

  21. 4 out of 5

    SP

    One of the most fascinating social histories I have read - eloquent, interesting and with lots of little details that make it a memorable read. I promise you will never look at potatoes the same way once you have finished this book. Reader manages to place the potato into various historical contexts, emphasising the incredible role it played throughout human history shaping the outcomes of wars and policies. Absolutely recommended.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    Audiobook. Excellent. A social and political and botanical history of the potato - told through the lens of 3 specific time periods. The initial discovery and domestication of the potato all the way to the Irish potato famine and beyond. This book was packed with interesting facts and stories. Gave me a deeper appreciation of the potato.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lance McNeill

    Surprisingly Engaging The book takes you on a world tour as it relates to the history of the potato. You never knew the potato had such an impact on civilization after the European discovery of the Andes spud. I would have given five stars but something is wrong with the formatting of the text in the ebook.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Liu

    I was expecting a book about how potato changed many parts of the world. Instead there was a huge coverage on how potato changed Ireland n the Irish famine. I agree it was important but surely other parts of the world must have been affected. This is the shortcomings of the book.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Kent

    I've eaten them, I've planted them, I've dug them up, peeled them............... I never thought I would ever read about them. I really enjoyed all the associated anecdotes, stories, science, statistics within The Untold History....... I've eaten them, I've planted them, I've dug them up, peeled them............... I never thought I would ever read about them. I really enjoyed all the associated anecdotes, stories, science, statistics within The Untold History.......

  26. 5 out of 5

    Drew

    Good idea but too many tangents. Not as good as some of the food history books that I have read in the past like Salt by Mark Kurlansky.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jesper Koplev

    A fine book, entertaining, but not exactly a page turner. I enjoyed it, but doubt that I will recomend it for others than the most hardcore history geeks.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Margaret McCulloch-Keeble

    A highly detailed almost scholarly study of the dear old humble spud. I had thought there may be some light-hearted moments within but the author was a little more dedicated than that.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Stef

    quite an interesting book. lots of interesting history related to the potato

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dylan

    Pretty standard commodity biography. The first quarter is a bit rocky but worth the read if you're a fan of the genre. Pretty standard commodity biography. The first quarter is a bit rocky but worth the read if you're a fan of the genre.

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