photo of pile of potatoes

Death and Potatoes

Few things seem as innocent as a spud. However, in the span of about a week, I encountered a confluence of conversations and articles about potatoes and people dying, or nearly dying, from them.

It started when I noticed on a potato production map that Peru, while being the birthplace of the potato, is not a big producer. Based on my (Peruvian) wife’s animus towards what she see sees as the defining characteristic of my Irish heritage – drinking whisky – I mused on the possibility of a movie plot where the potato started as was an Incan bio-weapon to be used against the Irish. I didn’t develop the plot that much, obviously it’s not that promising, so I’m not sure whether the purpose was to take over the Emerald Isle or enslavement or time-travelling revenge for my drunken snoring.

But I was curious enough to look up the potato famine. Hoo boy. It is about a good a cautionary tale against monoculture as you will find. Nineteenth century conversion of land to grazing – beef was for export – pushed families to subsistence farming on ever smaller and more marginal plots. Potatoes easily grown in even bad soil became the their only food. A blight hit in 1844 and by 1846 three quarters of the harvest was lost. British rule botched the response with vigorous malice and, under their administration, the country continued to export food throughout the famine. 1 million died between 1845 and 1849 out of a population of less than 9 million. About a quarter of the population emigrated and today the island still has fewer people than it did before the famine.

So potatoes are not as innocuous as they may seem.

Last week, when I was researching GMOs, I ran into this story about Lenape potatoes. A 1960’s project by the USDA, Penn State and the Wise Potato Chip Co. to develop the perfect potato for potato chips. It cooked perfectly. It had the right sugar and starch ratios, it was a beautiful color. It contained triple the amount of Solanine found in potatoes. Oops. Too much Solanine causes both gastrointestinal and neurological disorders; the usual stomach stuff like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramps but also headaches, dizziness, hallucinations, paralysis and death. Like all things toxic, it’s about the dosage. All potatoes have Solanine; the Lenape just concentrated it better.

Perhaps the most famous potato soup – Vichyssoise – is eaten cold because Louis XV of France, paranoid about being poisoned, had so many taste testers that by the time it got to him it was no longer hot.

Poison doesn’t have to be intentional and it turns out that Louis XV’s fears may have been justified. The first large food safety recall was for a million cans of Vichyssoise soup in 1971, for botulism. It killed a guy and put the Bon Vivant company out of business. Even a small taste of soup with botulism can be very dangerous. Potatoes come from the ground, which is where botulism bacteria is found and the soup is low acid, so growth isn’t inhibited. Botulism is anaerobic so a sealed container will actually help it multiply. There are dozen of cases of botulism poisoning every year although usually not from potatoes. But several times a decade, the death spud strikes.

Let me describe my only personal experience with potato related violence. Many years ago, a deviant friend of mine made a potato gun. This is 2 pieces of different sized pvc tube, connected with a reducer, a drum trap on one end and a hole drilled into right below where the tubes are joined A fireplace lighter is pushed into the hole and sealed with silicone (?). The drum trap is filled with hairspray and in the other goes a slightly less than snugly fitting potato. The lighter is sparked and the potato is propelled. I thought this would merely sputter (pun intended) out of the second floor window from which it was being fired. I was mistaken. The last I saw of the raw, hard potato it was heading in excess of 100 miles an hour over a neighboring building towards a busy intersection. Like all good delinquents, we immediately fled the scene and went to get a burger.

So remember, dull and inert as they seem, every potato has the eyes of a killer.

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