How Antoine Augustin Parmentier Tricked The World Into Loving Potatoes
The diligence of an 18th century French scientist was instrumental in making potatoes one of the most popular sources of food in the world
Potatoes are one of the most versatile and popular foods in the world. From french fries to mashed potatoes, and many concoctions in between, tubers are eaten in great quantities around the world. However, they might not enjoy such popularity if it wasn’t for a Frenchman named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who spent his life trying to convince people that they were good eating; first by education and then by trickery.
Born in 1737, Parmentier was a French agronomist and pharmacist who loved the study of plants and science. He did extensive work regarding nutrition, helping pioneer extracting sugar from beets, studied methods to conserve food like refrigeration, opened a bread-making school and was an early proponent of the smallpox vaccine.
The potato is what the scientist eventually became best known for. It may not have even crossed his mind to study as a food source if not for a stint he served in a Prussian prison as a prisoner of war in the Seven Years War after he was captured performing his duty as an army pharmacist. It was behind bars that he and other prisoners were fed a regular potatoes mash. Up until that time, the French regarded potatoes as hog feed, but instead of it being inedible slop as he might have assumed, he was intrigued by the nutritional value, not to mention they were pleasingly palatable.
Potatoes came to Europe by way of the Spanish from South America in the early 16th century. However, they didn’t catch on outside of Spain and Ireland, other than being a source of food for livestock. France even took the step of outlawing potatoes in 1748 once it became popular belief that they contributed to the communication of leprosy and other disease; a law that remained in effect until 1772 thanks in large part to Parmentier’s efforts.
When eating potatoes during his prison stint, Parmentier must have been skeptical at best and terrified at worst, given all the misinformation that was widely accepted as fact. Either way, any doubt certainly didn’t last and…