Saturday, March 16, 2013

Aliments: Sustenance and Libations - On potatoes

Of course there’s only one thing this month’s series could possibly be about.  And it isn’t green beer.

Read on for more:

Actually it isn’t even about Guinness.  I like Guinness well enough, but my preferred Irish imbibition is Smithwick's with a double Jameson.

No, I’m here today to talk to you about potatoes.  You’ve heard of the Potato Famine, I’ll wager.  I always thought it was something of a joke (it wasn’t).  But it is hard to imagine, this day in age, an entire country starving due to the failure of a single food, but that’s the trouble with putting all one’s potatoes in one basket, as it were.  Ask them what they’d have thought of GMOs.  Also ask Gregor Mendel. 

Anyway.  Potatoes.  They are prolific little things.  One little plant puts out quite a lot of tubers.  And it doesn’t take much space, so they were pretty much perfect for small-scale farming.  As a root crop, they keep well in the right conditions and all you’ve got to do to plant more is quarter a potato and stick it in the ground for four new plants.  People could grow enough to sell at market and have plenty to feed themselves on.  And feed themselves they did, to the point that a good third of Ireland was fully dependent upon them as a staple in their diet.  They figure I heard in a college history class (though, they can’t always be trusted for accuracy, it’s true) was the average individual Irishman was consuming pounds of potatoes daily.

Look at all those tubers!

Now, the Irish economy was in turmoil anyway.  Ask Jonathan Swift, he had a proposal to help that out.  So when the potatoes got a blight that lasted a few years, that was the end of that.  The population of Ireland has never recovered.  Somewhere around a million (give or take 500,000) starved.  Anybody who could got out of there. 

Bad times.  To me, that’s why St. Padraig’s is such an important cultural celebration.  And it’s why I always eat potatoes (while I’m drinking Smithwicks and Jamesons).  Those things have saved me from hangovers.

What’s funny is that for the last couple years when I’ve celebrated St. Paddy’s on Pittsburgh’s Southside, I’ve actually ended up at Hofbrauhaus for potato soup and potato salad.  Go figure.

And don't forget it!

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