“The Untold History of the Potato”

I’ve followed John Reader to the ends of our planet before, across the pages of Man on Earth, his primer of human niche adaptation -- how, where and what we scavenged, planted or traded to sustain ourselves and leave descendents. The Untold Story of the Potato – Reader’s geosocial and scientific biography of Solanum tuberosum and all who have eaten of it -- is even more original than that earlier work.

He starts prehistorically with a toxic tuber (that’s a chunk of stem), wild and beautiful near Lake Titicaca in South America, and ends with the contribution of the Chinese-developed spud, Cooperation 88, to the French-fried contemporary prosperity of the Peoples’ Republic, taking in horribly consequential 18th-century European population increases along the way. (Of course the industrial revolution was but the byproduct of spare labour brought into being by the potato’s perfect package of nutritious calories.)
Each chapter is discrete in content and manner, yet densely connected to the rest. Wonderful: to understand the whole world through a single crisp.

The Untold History of the Potato

John Reader
Vintage, 2009

— By Vera Rule

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009