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Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent (Anglais) Relié – mars 2009


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34 internautes sur 38 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Could have been titled "Potato Vignettes" 11 février 2009
Par Ursiform - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
The rather pompous subtitle, "A History of the Propitious Esculent" provides a bit of a warning up front. (It means "favorable edible thing", so you don't have to look it up.) This is not a book that draws you along, or really achieves a sense of story. But if you are interested in potatoes there is interesting information that can be extracted.

The author manages to start the book with Mars, asserting that astronauts will take potatoes with them when they go. He then moves to the Andes, from whence potatoes originate. Ancestral potatoes were toxic, and people in the Andes bred non-toxic varieties. The author discusses this as well as he can, but there is little direct evidence of how it was done. He then launches into a discussion of Andean civilizations and then the fall of the Inca to the Spanish. Acceptably done, but if you want a great account (of this and more) look at "1491" by Charles C. Mann.

The potato then makes its way to Europe, and slowly gains acceptance. (Including tales of fraud and the like.) Then comes Ireland, population explosion, and blight, death, and emigration. The discussion of the blight, how it happened, and what the consequences were is good. There is also much discussion of the politics of the time, and the fight over the Corn Laws ("corn" meaning grain, in the British use), which applied tariffs to keep out cheap foreign grain to protect British farmers. It also helped the Irish starve when the potato crop failed, and thus the blight contributed to ending a long political fight.

[Side note: I ordered the UK edition of this book based on a review in The Economist. The Economist was founded in opposition to the Corn Laws ...]

The story then moves back to the potato in Europe, especially in England. Reader argues--excessively, in my opinion--that it was the increase in population allowed by the potato that allowed the industrial revolution to take place. I'll accept that it was a contributing factor, but the author takes the argument too far.

Next is the story of how the blight was understood and means of control developed. Among these was the collection and study of many species not cultivated in Europe as potential breading varieties, good material for some adventure stories.

Reader then takes the potato to Papua New Guinea, where the Irish experience of expanded nutrition followed by blight was played out on a smaller scale. (The level of disaster that occurred in Ireland was not allowed to repeat.) He finally takes the potato to China, where he traces the story from the disastrous policies of Mao that resulted in famine to China becoming the largest producer and consumer of potatoes. But this includes an example of how the author fails to make the book one story rather than many.

Near the end he writes: "But aside from the sheer scale of the disaster, what sets Mao's famine apart from all others is that it was entirely avoidable. It had not been caused by invasion or civil war; no floods had washed away the crops or droughts dried up the fields. No blight had destroyed the harvest, and the world would have shipped in emergency supplies if only China has asked." Having already covered the Irish famine and the Soviet famine of the 1920's it should have been clear to the author that politics has nearly always been a key player in famine over the last few centuries. (In fairness, he does make the nod to "civil war". But how different was Mao's war against the Chinese people from a civil war?) The famine in Ukraine in the 1930's was intentionally imposed by Stalin! But Reader's book is so spud-centric that famine is seemingly always either caused by or alleviated by potatoes. In this he misses the bigger picture.

This book has many good stories about potatoes, but it lacks the integration and continuity to be the story of the potato. I struggled a bit between three and four stars, and chose three because it seems as though either the author or editor could have taken the material available and made a solidly four star book out of it.
10 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
The Empire of Spuds 26 septembre 2009
Par Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust) - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
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 kill 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 long-term survival.

Wild spuds are not the slightest bit interested in sprawling agribusiness monocultures, cancerous civilizations, population explosions, fungicide industries, topsoil destruction, or morbid obesity. 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 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.

Richard Adrian Reese
Author of What Is Sustainable
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Fascinating, really good history for anyone who eats 26 novembre 2012
Par Henri IV - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
Before I read this book, I knew that potatoes came from South America, that the Spanish brought them to the new world, that there was an Irish potato famine that drove many Irish to emigrate to America, and that french fries and potato chips aren't the healthiest foods. I have grown potatoes in my garden, so I know that there are different varieties to choose from, different sizes, shapes, colors, cooking qualities, tastes, and ripening times, and that one should not plant them in the same place repeatedly, although I've never had a problem, and they come up in the same place on their own the next year anyway. I knew about the role M. Parmentier played in popularizing the potato in France, and about the French potato dishes that bear his name today. But as for all the rest of the history of the potato...I had absolutely no idea. I found this book absolutely fascinating. We so take the potato for granted, that big bulging brown thing that we bake or mash or fry, or the red "new potato" that we boil and use for more delicate purposes. (The French have access to and enjoy a much wider range of nuanced varieties.) I did not realize the impact the potato has had on various societies, its importance all over the world, its development as a useful, modern crop, and the huge volume of potatoes grown today. I had no idea that the Chinese grew potatoes, as potatoes don't appear on Chinese restaurant menus. I had no idea of the extensive efforts to breed useful varieties, and to find solutions to the late blight that caused the Irish famine. I had never thought about wild potatoes and their characteristics. The more one learns about something, the more interesting it becomes. This book has given me tremendous respect for the potato and for all of the people that have contributed to making it the tuber we know and love today. Super book.
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Outstanding Book 22 août 2011
Par H. Campbell - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
Reader cannot be praised enough for his book, which combines history, botany, culture, economics with a smooth and highly readable style. The humble potato has had an impact on human development way out of proportion to its ubiquitous and taken-for-granted status in the modern world (or perhaps precisely because of that status.) I found fascinating his assertion that it was endemic European war that convinced an otherwise recalcitrant population to accept the wonderful efficiency of the highly nutritious tuber. The contention that the potato has promoted population growth is convincing also, though the parallel advancements in medicine and science surely had valuable parts to play also. Fittingly, he provided China's experience with the spud as his closing anecdote, since that country has now surpassed the USA, as in so many other things, as the world's largest producer. I've read similar tomes on such consumables as vanilla, chocolate, chilies and alcohol, but reader's stands out for his erudite style and breadth of coverage, all in a reasonably sized book for the non-specialist reader like myself.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Potatoes 15 novembre 2014
Par Taj Mitchell - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Broché
When I read this book I felt a bit of anguish while facing the fact that I am human. This book sought my problems and solved them. Continue practice of this book turned me into a potato and I began my potato ways. I got hired at McDonald's and was able to become a medium combo. Thank you
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