The Potato Eaters. Van Gogh, 1885. The artist tried to emphasize that those people eating the potatoes in the lamp-light had dug the earth with their hands- Picture from Google images
The wheat harvest in the British Isles failed in 1794, sending the price of white bread beyond the reach of England’s poor. Food riots broke out, and with them a great debate over the potato that would rage, on and off, for half a century. The potato debate is recounted in Redcliffe Salaman’s 1949 volume, “ The History and Social Influence of the Potato”. This debate brought to the surface predictable English anxieties about class conflict and the “Irish problem”. But potato’s advocates argued that introducing it in England, would be a way to feed the poor.
Arthur Young, a respected agronomist, had traveled to Ireland and returned convinced that the potato was a “root of plenty”. The radical journalist William Cobbett also traveled to Ireland, yet he returned with a very different picture of the potato eaters. Cobbett argued that while it was true that the potato fed the Irish, it also impoverished them, by driving up the country’s population –from three million to eight million in less than a century-. The prolific potato allowed young Irishmen to marry earlier and support a larger family. This “damned root” (as Cobbett said in his articles) pulled the Irishman out of civilization and back down into the earth, gradually muddying the distinctions between man and beast, even man and root.
This is how he described the potato eater’s mud hut: “No windows at all;…the floor nothing but the bare earth; no chimney, but a hole at one end…surrounded by a few stones.” In Cobbett’s grim imagery, the Irish had themselves moved underground, joining their tubers in the mud.
English usually depicted the potato as mere food, primitive, unreconstructed, and lacking in any cultural resonance. Bread, on the other hand, was as leavened with meaning as it was with air. Like the potato, wheat begins in nature, but it is then transformed by culture; it symbolized civilization’s mastery of raw nature. A mere food thus became the substance of human and even spiritual communion, for there was also the old identification of bread with the body of Christ.
Text adapted from “The Botany of Desire”, by Michael Pollan. Pages 203-204. USA, 2001