Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Origin of Potatoes and French Fries

As part of an assignment in my Environmental Geography class, I have researched the history of potatoes and french fries. They go back a long way. Here's what I've written:

      As well all know, French fries are made from potatoes. However, the French fry has a long history. Wild potatoes in bitter and inedible and must be processed. Farmers have domesticated potatoes since long before the French fry was invented. The domestication of potatoes began in the Andean altiplano about 7,000 years ago. The Andean tribes cultivated them for several millennia. When the Spanish arrived in South America in the 16th Century, potatoes were among the many goods that they acquired. Through the Columbian Exchange, potatoes were sent from the New World to Old World and introduced to the Europeans for the first time. Initially, the strange new spud failed to catch on in Europe. Superstition abounded about the alien plant that grew underground and was never mentioned in any of the Scriptures. In 1588, however, the potato was introduced to Ireland, where it adapted to the climate and became a popular crop. Gradually, suspicion towards the spud faded. During the late 18th Century, several European nations began domesticating and growing potatoes and it became a staple crop in France and Germany. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, the potato became a major source of economic development in Britain. The Irish were dependent on the crop and were severely affected by a famine that ravaged the crops in the 1840s.

During this time, the potato was brought to United States. It was first used as a trading good by Christian missionaries to pacify the Native American tribes. In 1836, one preacher named Henry Spalding gave it to the tribes in an effort to teach them to practice agriculture rather than relying on hunting and gathering. It didn’t become a major foodstuff until after the Civil War. In 1872, Luther Burbank developed a potato in Idaho that was more resistant to disease. The “Russet Burbank potato” was a widespread crop in Idaho by 1900 and a thriving food market developed around it.

      During the 19th Century, methods of cooking the potato became popular across Europe. There is some debate over whether the French or the Belgians where the first to fry potatoes. Nonetheless, it became a big hit in Europe. During World War I, American soldiers serving in Europe got a taste of the fried potato. It was so popular with them that they brought some of them back home when the war was over. This is how fried potatoes became popular in the United States.  

The French fry wasn’t invented in America, but it first became popular here. Much of its popularity is result of the boom in fast-food. After World War II, McDonalds and other fast-food restaurants became a major part of our national cuisine. The McDonalds French fry is perhaps the most iconic. When McDonalds first opened in 1955, the fries were hand-cut from fresh potatoes. As the restaurant company boomed in the 1960s, however, this became too costly. In 1966, McDonalds CEO Ray Kroc made a deal with JR Simplot, whose company had been developing technology to freeze potatoes. Simplot opened a factory dedicated to producing frozen fries. The method of producing the frozen fries and then quickly cooking them in oil caught on rapidly. Through the effects of globalization, McDonalds spread throughout the world. The popularity of the French fry has caused a huge demand for the Russet Burbank potatoes, which are easy to freeze and fry. This variety of potato, however, is not easy to grow. Potato farmers around the world often cannot grow other varieties of potatoes due to the fast-food companies requiring that they produce the Russet Burbank potato. Species diversity has declined dramatically as a result. 

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