Potato - Reader, John; The Random House Group Ltd - Yale University Press
Social Science


A History of the Propitious Esculent

  • John Reader
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Out of Print.

The potato—humble, lumpy, bland, familiar—is a decidedly unglamorous staple of the dinner table. Or is it? John Reader’s narrative on the role of the potato in world history suggests we may be underestimating this remarkable tuber. From domestication in Peru 8,000 years ago to its status today as the world’s fourth largest food crop, the potato has played a starring—or at least supporting—role in many chapters of human history. In this witty and engaging book, Reader opens our eyes to the power of the potato.

Whether embraced as the solution to hunger or wielded as a weapon of exploitation, blamed for famine and death or recognized for spurring progress, the potato has often changed the course of human events. Reader focuses on sixteenth-century South America, where the indigenous potato enabled Spanish conquerors to feed thousands of conscripted native people; eighteenth-century Europe, where the nutrition-packed potato brought about a population explosion; and today’s global world, where the potato is an essential food source but also the world’s most chemically-dependent crop. Where potatoes have been adopted as a staple food, social change has always followed. It may be “just” a humble vegetable, John Reader shows, yet the history of the potato has been anything but dull.

John Reader is a writer and photojournalist who holds an honorary research fellowship in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. He lives in Surrey, UK.

Do You Know Your Spuds?

A multiple-choice potato quiz

(answers below)


1: French fries were first introduced to the United States by

a.       Benjamin Franklin

b.      John Adams

c.       Washington Carver

d.      Thomas Jefferson


2: The worlds largest potato producer today is

a.       Ireland

b.      China

c.       Australia

d.      Peru


3: From what part of the plant does the potato come?

a.       The root

b.      The flower

c.       The leaf bud

d.      The stem


4: Other crop plants closely related to potatoes include

a.       Tomato, chili peppers, and petunias

b.      Corn, beans, and millet

c.       Kava, marijuana, and peyote

d.      Rice, sugar cane, and maize


5: Potato blight is

a.       A kind of mold

b.      A wart

c.       A parasitic insect

d.      A parasitic plant


6: How many people died in Ireland as a result of the potato blight and subsequent  famine?

a.       100,000

b.      4 million

c.       1 million

d.      500,000


7: Scientists are conducting experiments with potatoes in order to determine their usefulness 

            a. as a food source for astronauts on the next mission to Mars

            b. as a healing agent in organic medications

            c. as inexpensive insulation in buildings

            d. as an insecticide


8: A poisonous plant that is a close relative of the potato is

a.       Deadly nightshade

b.      Poinsettia

c.       Daffodil

d.      Poison ivy


9: The potato was first introduced to Europe in

a.       About 1780

b.      About 1588

c.       About 1650

d.      About 1492


10: The original name of the potato in Quechua, the language of the Inca, is

a.       Tapas

b.      Papa

c.       Pate

d.      Tater























(Spud Quiz Answers: 1:d. 2:b, 3:d, 4:a, 5:a, 6:c, 7:a, 8:a, 9:b, 10:b)


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