Well that’s us put in our place then. I was reminded of William Cobbett’s 1821 book “Cottage Economy” this week while I was reading an equally interesting book by Carol Deppe – “The Resilient Gardener” published in 2010, almost two centuries later
William Cobbett is rather like one of those entertaining characters you bump into at a party or in the pub and hit it off with straight away. The conversation, like a fencing match, carries on with each tall story matched and bettered until suddenly and without warning the ‘entertaining character’ comes out with a deeply upsetting or unacceptable statement that leaves you breathlessly trying to escape their clutches in case anyone overhears. I used to love reading Cobbett because there was something irresistibly funny about his gammon faced attacks on governments, bureaucracy, Methodist ministers and – potatoes. Nowadays, “Cottage Economy” just reads like an overlong speech by an extreme brexiter. The potato turns out to be a handy surrogate for racist attacks on the Irish in general, and much as I agree with his strictures on absentee landlords and rural poverty; his cure – once again – is all a bit homebrew and roast beef; a pastiche of an invented rural idyll.
So back to Carol Deppe who – aside from her completely pardonable eccentricities (like not liking Swiss Chard) – matches Cobbett only in her passionate devotion to the spud. I remember a newcomer to allotments saying to me once that he had been completely amazed at the ferocity of the religious fervour of allotmenteers’ attachments to their least substantiated beliefs. Putting orange peel or rhubarb leaves into the compost heap is equivalent to a mortal sin, for instance. Diet too comes in for a bashing – and pride of place in the parade of shame belongs to the potato which is obviously (i.e. in the absence of evidence) the single most potent cause of obesity, diabetes and uncouth behaviour in the universe; and William Cobbett was a temporising secret remoaner.
So who’s responsible for this reputation. Carol Deppe lists the qualities of the tremendous tuber which include a wide range of micronutrients; a whole bunch of calories that we really do need to survive, and a surprisingly high level of protein – potentially 10%. The first early potato is both annual landmark – like the celandine on the canal today – and completely delicious. Just to add to the joy; eating it with butter actually lowers the glycaemic index. What’s not to like? I wrote the other day about the scapegoating of corn because of its abuse by industrial food producers, and the same thing applies to the potato. No-one wants to live on nothing but potatoes, but it’s pre-cooked oven chips, pre-baked baked potatoes (???) and chips fried in cholesterol boosting fats that we should be going after.
The potato is amazingly easy to grow – especially if you grow earlies when there’s no chance of losing them to late blight (Phytophthora infestans). The range of flavours and textures is huge and, if you’ve got space in your garden, there are blight resistant maincrop potatoes that will keep you in calories all winter. In gardening, in diets, and life in general, the aim is balance.
If there’s a guilty party in the exile of the potato from nice peoples’ diets, it’s the scientific high priesthood who decided decades ago that obesity was solely caused by excess consumption of carbohydrates. Then they changed their minds and said that the culprit was fat – which was a wonderful gift to the food industry who discovered that they could hide a pile of sugar in a low fat yoghurt. The constant to and fro of diet orthodoxies left the great general public anxious and perplexed about food altogether, and supported the exponential growth of the diet food industry.
All the while the most sensible food advice of the last fifty years was gifted to us by Michael Pollan with his “eat food, not too much, mostly veg.” – to which I’d add ” – your own home grown, organic and locally sourced veg”. Ultimately, we all need calories and we could, if we wished, get most of our daily allowance from drinking a bottle of wine or two, living exclusively on potatoes or eating a couple of burgers and chips. But turning to an exclusive diet of lettuce would soon make you ill however virtuous it also made you feel.
Sadly we’ve reached a point in human evolution where – because of decades of misbehaviour – we have to be mindful of food once again; seriously mindful. But abandoning the potato because it has a bad reputation will no more save the world than avoiding the cracks in the pavement. When it comes to choosing between rain forest destroying soya flour, corn fed industrial meat and locally produced potatoes for some of your daily protein, there’s a difficult and grown up decision to be made; and this isn’t a simple choice between vegan or vegetarian. The decision needs to embrace economics, politics, international justice as well as personal health – which makes it tricky, but not nearly as tricky as choosing between half a dozen identical industrially produced foods with different labels.
At the end of the day, and with a little gardening skill, we can grow potatoes easily on the allotment. In our case just a few first earlies as a seasonal treat, because they’re so lovely to eat. We also bake all our own bread, but there’s no way we could grow enough grain to be self-sufficient in flour. What we can do is eat a selection of carb rich roots alongside a huge variety of equally healthy greens, salads, tomatoes and herbs. We’ll never be self-sufficient but why would we need to be? There are many small producers close by who can enrich our diet and whom we can support or barter with. Our lunch today included three types of cheese made on an organic farm within walking distance and tasting as good as any imported types.
When it comes to health hazards, the potato is way down the list behind poverty, unemployment, poor housing, stress and overwork. Maybe thirty years ago we could have tackled these problems sequentially but we’ve left it too late. Food, the economy and politics are the ugly sisters and Cinderella is the earth. The trouble is, this isn’t a fairy tale.