Friday, 4 March 2016

Some Comments on Potatoes from 1796

Well, I haven't been doing any cooking. We're still up to our eyebrows in cataloguing license plates, although progress is being made. (Did I mention my father collected license plates? Looks like the total final count will be a bit over 4,000.)

So to keep you entertained until something not pertaining to license plates happens around here, I thought I would share this quote on potatoes with you. It comes from a reprint I have of "Mrs. Whiting's Domestic Cookery" (that's actually only part of the title), and dated 1819. However, Mrs. Whiting, whoever she may have been, was as blatant a plagiariser as ever plagiarised; the book is straight up "American Cookery" (title also abbreviated) by Amelia Simmons, originally printed in 1796. Apparently the title (and "author") were the only things that changed.

To make it even odder, the bit I'm quoting was apparently not written by Amelia Simmons, but included in her book without her permission, to her intense rage. Of course, the final twist is that Amelia also plagiarised an earlier cookbook.

Anyway; you all know, I think, how keen I have become on potatoes and their history. Whoever wrote this bit, it is full of interesting information:

" POTATOES take rank for universal use, profit and easy acquirement. The smooth skin, known by the name of How's potatoe, is the most mealy and richest flavoured; the yellow rusticoat next best; the red and red rusticoat are tolerable; and the yellow Spanish have their value. Those cultivated from imported seed, on sandy or dry loamy lands, are best for table use, though the red or either will produce more in rich, loamy, highly manured garden grounds; new lands and a sandy soil, afford the richest flavoured and most mealy potatoe. Much depends on the ground on which they grow, more on the species of potatoe planted, and still more from foreign seeds, and each may be known by attention to connoisseurs; for a good potatoe comes  up in many branches of cookery, as herein after prescribed. All potatoes should be dug before the rainy seasons in the fall, well dried in the sun, kept from frost and dampness during the winter, in the spring removed from the cellar to a dry loft, and spread thin, and frequently stirred and dried, or they will grow and be thereby injured for cookery.

A roast potatoe is brought on with roast beef, a steak, a chop, or fricassee; good boiled with a boiled dish; make an excellent stuffing for a turkey, water, or wild fowl; make a good pie, and a good starch for many uses.

It would swell this treatise too much to say every thing that is useful to prepare a good table, but I may be pardoned for observing, that the Irish have preserved a genuine mealy rich potatoe, for a century, which takes rank of any other known in any other kingdom; and I have heard that they renew their seed by planting and cultivating the SEED BALL, which grows on the tine. The manner of their managing it to keep up the excellence of that root would better suit a treatise on agriculture and gardening than this, and be inserted in a book which would be read by the farmer, instead of his amiable daughter. "
Allrighty, then! Firstly; it is unlikely any of the potatoes described yet survive, the ravages of time and late blight have taken their toll. Rusticoat, I assume, has evolved over the years to become the word russet.

Note the phrase,  "best for table use." What other use is there for potatoes, you may ask, but in fact, like many root vegetables, potatoes were grown for use as a winter animal feed. The use of large tracts of land to grow food for animals is not a new phenomenon at all.

The comments about the kind of soil best for potatoes, their harvesting and storage, are still perfectly useful; but I confess I wonder at the insistence on "foreign" seed. The subsequent comments on the Irish and their SEED BALLS make it clear that seed potatoes, not true potato seed, is meant. I wish whoever wrote this bit had said more but it seems he* didn't know much more; plainly growing potatoes from the seed balls was fairly arcane even then.

* He? Who knows; but somehow I am left with that impression.


Margaret said...

How interesting - and quite funny too. It must have been relatively easy to plagiarize a book back then. I have a couple of old cookbook reprints from the mid-1800's as well - the intimate peek they provide into life in those times is just fascinating.

I found a couple of parts in this book's text particularly interesting - firstly the rather odd statement that potatoes should be left in the sun to dry out after harvest. I'm guessing the short timeframe doesn't allow for them to start greening up, but still. And then the part about taking them out of the cellar in the spring & placing them in a dry loft - I can see the "dry" bit being better, but I would think that lofts were generally be quite warm - would this not hasten their you have any insight on that?

Ferdzy said...

Yeah, leaving them to dry makes sense - they would be covered in a certain amount of dirt, and a lot of people still think they store best with the dirt still on them - but if the dirt isn't dry enough, it will encourage mould. I actually think it's best to wash and dry your potatoes well before you store them - but that is a minority opinion, and also that of a person who isn't dealing with a ton of them. Many modern varieties of potatoes have been selected to come out of the ground looking pretty clean - it's a skin texture thing, I think - but I'd be surprised if that was the case with old varieties.

As for removing them to a dry, warm loft in late winter; that makes sense too. If your potatoes are thinking of sprouting, they will actually sprout worse without any light. Long winding sprouts that just won't give up. If mould and decay are starting up, some warm dry air will help slow that down. Also, people didn't necessarily know how bad the green spots on potatoes were for you!