By Carlyn Beccia (Guest Contributor)
We tend to associate the potato more with Ireland and England than we do with France and that may be because the humble spud had a very rocky start with French Parisians. Although already widely accepted in England, the potato did not come to France until around 1600.1 Still, no respectable royal would dare to eat the strange, dirty, lumpy looking spud. The potato became so feared that in 1619 it was banned from Burgundy, France because it was rumored to cause leprosy. It all made perfect sense to 16th century scholars. The potato looked like leprosy so therefore it must cause leprosy.
The leprosy spud finally got an image makeover in the 18th century with the help from a potato propagandist and French chemist named Antoine-Auguste Parmentier. Parmentier threw some fabulous parties and invited the French upper class to taste his potato creations. At one of these parties, Parmentier gave Louis XVI a bouquet of potato flowers. Knowing his wife’s proclivity for putting vegetables in her hair, Louis thoughtfully placed one delicate, purple sprig in Marie Antoinette’s pouf. Thereafter, the potato may not have become a fashion accesory, but it did become the new, hot food delicacy among the upper class.
The potato then went on to feed the French peasants and everyone loved their queen and…lived happily ever after.
Ok, not exactly. Unfortunately, it took a few bread shortages, a nasty revolution, and some beheaded monarchs for the government to finally see the potato’s full potential for feeding the rest of the starving country. In 1794, a year after Marie Antoinette was beheaded, the queen’s beloved flowerbeds in the Tuileries were plowed over to make way for the purple blossoms that would feed a nation and become one of France’s biggest exports.
Carlyn Beccia is author of The Raucous Royals and Who Put the B in the Ballyhoo? and I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat: History’s Strangest Cures. She writes about the scandals, rumors, and gossip of royalty on her fabulous blog. You’ll recognize Carlyn’s art here on Wonders & Marvels; she designed our fabulous logo, among many other wonderful things!
(1) Some historians have blamed the slower populations grown of France in the 18th century to their dependence of grain while other countries had the starchy potato to fall back on. In reverse to France’s grain dependency, reliance on the potato backfired in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. (2) This was at a time when walnuts were eaten to treat headaches because they looked like a brain and eating the brains of another animal would make you smarter.
Sources and Further Reading:
Langer L. William, “American Foods and Europe’s Population Growth 1750-1850.” Journal of Social History 8.2 (1975): 51-66.
Salaman N. Redcliffe, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.