Respect the potato

When I heard the news last year of the threat of a global famine, I was cleaning my brushes after finishing my work and the soapy water had turned the colour of a dirty potato.

As a child, I ate potatoes every day. My grandmothers, experts in Polish cooking, prepared them in dozens of different ways! I recognise the nutritional value of this vegetable, rich in vitamins and antioxidants. And yet, I have always associated the potato with something banal, synonymous with poverty, the object of an almost embarrassing modesty.

The history of the potato

Until the early 16th century, no one had ever heard of the potato except the native South Americans. Solanum tuberosum – the potato – was introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors, who borrowed the word “patata” from the indigenous people of the Caribbean. On European soil, the potato was initially grown only in monastic, royal and aristocratic gardens. It was seen as both an exotic ornamental plant, due to the beauty of its flowers, but also as a medicinal plant. Missionaries and monks played an important role in the spread of the potato, since they knew of its possible uses in cooking and medicine. But getting the potato out of the secretive monastic gardens had a rocky start. Post-medieval society called potatoes “devil’s apples” believing they were poisonous and could even cause leprosy.

Raw potatoes contain solanine, a toxic substance. This is one of the reasons why it took so long for them to be accepted on the table: basically people had to understand that they had to be cooked first before being eaten. Before that time they were mostly given to the pigs!

The great promoter of the potato on the European continent was the French apothecary Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. However, his research and discoveries would not have been successful without the authority of his social network. Supported by King Louis XVI, before the Revolution, this scientist from the Enlightenment era will be allowed to continue his research after the Revolution, appointed by Napoleon!

When in 1785 France was hit by famine, Louis XVI personally intervened to defend Parmentier’s idea that potatoes “could replace, in times of famine, those commodities commonly used for human consumption”. In other words, the potato could easily replace wheat and corn. However out of jealousy and ignorance, many distrusted Parmentier. Until the day when this scientist decides to use  intrigue and cunning to defend his discovery.

In 1786, King Louis XVI allowed him to plant potatoes in Neuilly, on the road from Versailles to Paris. To arouse curiosity, Parmentier had guards placed around his field. But it was a trap: the guards are ordered only to pretend to work, and NOT to arrest the thieves! So the potatoes are stolen and eaten.  A few months later, the potato is launched. It will soon be invited onto the plates of all French people.

But of all the countries in Europe that have adopted the potato, Ireland is certainly the one that has done so with the most enthusiasm. In the 18th century, the vegetable was already cultivated all over the country, easily adapting to the most ungrateful soils and violent winds. A century later, in 1841, Ireland was considered the most populated country in Europe. Today it is one of the least populated countries in the world. How come?

In the 19th century, this population depended exclusively on the land and its fate was linked to the fluctuation of agricultural prices. If these prices fell, the landlords expelled their peasants to consolidate their income. The peasants still cultivate tiny plots of land, insufficient to ensure their livelihood, and between two harvests they have to go into exile to find work in England. The Irish people were faced with a strange paradox: the landlords received an annuity from their peasants. To pay it, the peasants, already suffering from famine, cultivate and export cereals that they cannot touch for fear of being chased off their land! The appalling consequence is that Ireland, during all this period of famine, continues to export cereals and cattle only for the service of the land rent! Perhaps abroad they could better enjoy the goods of their land? For the moment however they still have the potatoes. 

But in 1845, a catastrophe struck the whole of Europe: mildew (a plant disease) destroyed the potato harvest, while bad weather destroyed the cereals. The shortage is everywhere, in England, in France, in the Germanic Confederation. In Belgium, several hundreds of thousands of Flemings suffered from famine and typhus. This same plague caused 16,000 deaths in Silesia, a part of Poland. But it is in Ireland that the famine hits hardest. It’s horror surpassing all that had been seen until then.

The high humidity of the air favours the appearance of potato blight, which in a short time can completely destroy an entire plantation. In the middle of the 19th century, the massive appearance of potato blight in Europe, especially in Ireland, led to a great emigration overseas. Thousands of Irish people embarked for the New World in overcrowded ships (…)

These are probably only some of the adventures of our hero, the potato, protecting countries from the famine of the past. And now: “War is tipping a fragile world towards mass hunger. Fixing that is everyone’s business.” ‘- tweeted The Economist on May 22, 2022. But that’s a different story.

A different story?

In May 2022, the media warned that the consequences of the war in Ukraine would be a collapse of the world food market, especially grain…. I saw, as if through a prism, that the world is not only headed for famine at a large scale, but has been heading there for a long time, for many reasons. But now the threat affects me and my children as well.

Then it was a beautiful sunny day. We were sitting with a friend on the terrace of a café in the centre of Brussels. I am from Poland, she is from Germany and we met here in Brussels about 20 years ago. I must have said something about the crisis and my anxiety, because she started to tell me a story about her Dutch grandfather. 

Just before World War II, as the eldest son of a large family, he was given an extremely ambitious mission. Supported by the investment of his family and an entire starving village, he was to buy and bring back potatoes from the distant lands of the Soviet Union. Rising unemployment, poverty, an unfavourable climate and the coming war meant that the Netherlands was short of this basic commodity long before the Hongerwinter (the winter of hunger in 1944-1945). “My grandfather,”  she said, “went through Germany and Poland, until he arrived in Russia. He loaded up two tons of potatoes on a ship and returned by sea to the Netherlands. When he finally unpacked the potatoes, it turned out that they were all rotten. The family was very disappointed and disinherited my grandfather and the people of his village banished him. He never returned to his village. He wandered the world until he found an aging farm couple with no children in a small German village. There was a shortage of young men, like everywhere, as many had been conscripted for the army. Later, after the war, not wanting to hear about potatoes, he planted thousands of tulips.”

“Feeding a little life with dried tubers”

(TS Eliot, The waste land, I)

I might have forgotten this story, but for the water and oil mix after painting. Every time, the same colours appeared. That’s how I started painting potatoes, playing with this solution, spreading the dipped brush on the cardboard, watching the paper absorb the brown/grey pigment residue and soak it up.

I fed the little life of these few square centimetres of cardboard, with the remains of colours, in the outline of an imperfect shape, neither square nor quite round. Completely random, always concentric, the colour spot filled itself in an almost meditative way. (By the way, it’s hard not to succeed in painting a potato!)

I didn’t add anything to the background, in the vicinity of the shape. White blank. There is only what there is. Visible, but not depicted from a visible model. Simply present. Banal, yes, almost embarrassingly modest. These are the potatoes of my memories, my mental tubers, each one on its own, my solanum tuberosum conscientiae.