Our invaluable Potato, which enters so largely into the dietary of all

classes, belongs to the Nightshade tribe of [442] dangerous plants,

though termed solanaceous as a natural order because of the

sedative properties which its several genera exercise to lull pain.

This Potato, the Solanum tuberosum, is so universally known as a

plant that it needs no particular description. It is a native of Peru,

and w
s imported in 1586 by Thomas Heriot, mathematician and

colonist, being afterwards taken to Ireland from Virginia by Sir

Walter Raleigh, and passing from thence over into Lancashire. He

knew so little of its use that he tried to eat the fruit, or poisonous

berries, of the plant. These of course proved noxious, and he ordered

the new comers to be rooted out. The gardener obeyed, and in doing

so first learnt the value of their underground wholesome tubers. But

not until the middle of the eighteenth century, were they common in

this country as an edible vegetable. During 1629, says Parkinson,

the Potato from Virginia was roasted under the embers, peeled and

sliced: the tubers were put into sack with a little sugar, or were

baked with cream, marrow, sugar, spice, etc., in pies, or preserved

and candied by the comfit makers. But he most probably refers

here to the Batatas, or sweet Potato, a Convolvulus, which was a

popular esculent vegetable at that date, of tropical origin, and to

which our Potato has since been thought to bear a resemblance.

This Batatas, or sweet Potato, had the reputation, like Eringo root,

of being able to restore decayed vigour, and so Falstaff is made by

Shakespeare to say: Let the sky rain potatoes, hail kissing comfits,

and snow eringoes. For a considerable while after their

introduction the Potato tubers were grown only by men of fortune as

a delicacy; and the general cultivation of this vegetable was strongly

opposed by the public, [443] chiefly by the Puritans, because no

mention of it could be found in the Bible.

Also in France great opposition was offered to the recognised use of

Potatoes: and it is said that Louis the Fifteenth, in order to bring

the plant into favour, wore a bunch of its flowers in the button hole

of his coat on a high festival. Later on during the Revolution quite a

mania prevailed for Potatoes. Crowds perambulated the streets of

Paris shouting for la liberte, et des Batatas; and when Louis the

Sixteenth had been dethroned the gardens of the Tuileries were

planted with Potatoes. Cobbett, in this country, exclaimed virulently

against the tuber as hogs' food, and hated it as fiercely as he hated

tea. The stalks, leaves, and green berries of the plant share the

narcotic and poisonous attributes of the nightshades to which it

belongs; and the part which we eat, though often thought to be a

root, is really only an underground stem, which has not been acted

on by light so as to develop any poisonous tendencies, and in which

starch is stored up for the future use of the plant.

The stalks, leaves, and unripe fruit yield an active principle

apparently very powerful, which has not yet been fully investigated.

There are two sorts of tubers, the red and the white. A roasted

Potato takes two hours to digest; a boiled one three hours and a half.

After the Potato, says an old proverb, cheese.

Chemically the Potato contains citric acid, like that of the lemon,

which is admirable against scurvy: also potash, which is equally

antiscorbutic, and phosphoric acid, yielding phosphorus in a

quantity less only than that afforded by the apple, and by wheat. It is

of the first importance that the potash salts should be retained by the

potato during cooking: and the [444] tubers should therefore be

steamed with their coats on; else if peeled, and then steamed, they

lose respectively seven and five per cent. of potash, and phosphoric


If boiled after peeling they lose as much as thirty-three per cent. of

potash, and twenty-three per cent. of phosphoric acid. The roots,

says Gerard, were forbidden in Burgundy, for that they were

persuaded the too frequent use of them causeth the leprosie.

Nevertheless it is now believed that the Potato has had much to do

with expelling leprosy from England. The affliction has become

confined to countries where the Potato is not grown.

Boiled or steamed Potatoes should turn out floury, or mealy, by

reason of the starch granules swelling up and filling the cellular

tissue, whilst absorbing the albuminous contents of its cells. Then

the albumen coagulates, and forms irregular fibres between the

starch grains. The most active part of the tuber lies just beneath the

skin, as may be shown by pouring some tincture of guaiacum over

the cut surface of a Potato, when a ring of blue forms close to the

skin, and is darkest there while extending over the whole cut

surface. Abroad there is a belief the Potato thrives best if planted on

Maundy Thursday. Rustic names for it are: Taiders, Taities, Leather

Coats, Leather Jackets, Lapstones, Pinks, No Eyes, Flukes, Blue

Eyes, Red Eyes, and Murphies; in Lancashire Potatoes are called

Spruds, and small Potatoes, Sprots.

The peel or rind of the tuber contains a poisonous substance called

solanin, which is dissipated and rendered inert when the whole

Potato is boiled, or steamed. Stupes of hot Potato water are very

serviceable in some forms of rheumatism. To make the [445]

decoction for this purpose, boil one pound of Potatoes (not peeled,

and divided into quarters.) in two pints of water slowly down to one

pint; then foment the swollen and painful parts with this as hot as it

can be borne. Similarly some of the fresh stalks of the plant, and its

unripe berries, as well as the unpeeled tubers cut up as described, if

infused for some hours in cold water, will make a liquor in which

the folded linen of a compress may be loosely rung out, and applied

most serviceably under waterproof tissue, or a double layer of dry

flannel. The carriage of a small raw Potato in the trousers' pocket

has been often found preventive of rheumatism in a person

predisposed thereto, probably by reason of the sulphur, and the

narcotic principles contained in the peel. Ladies in former times had

their dresses supplied with special bags, or pockets, in which to

carry one or more small raw Potatoes about their person for

avoiding rheumatism.

If peeled and pounded in a mortar, uncooked Potatoes applied cold

make a very soothing cataplasm to parts that have been scalded, or

burnt. In Derbyshire a hot boiled Potato is used against corns; and

for frost-bites the mealy flour of baked potatoes, when mixed with

sweet oil and applied, is very healing.

The skin of the tuber contains corky wood which swells in boiling

with the jackets on, and which thus serves to keep in all the juices so

that the digestibility of the Potato is increased; at the same time

water is prevented from entering and spoiling the flavour of the

vegetable. The proportion of muscle-forming food (nitrogen) in the

Potato is very small, and it takes ten and a half pounds of the tubers

to equal one pound of butcher's meat in nutritive value.

The Potato is composed mainly of starch, which [446] affords

animal heat and promotes fatness, The Irish think that these tubers

foster fertility; they prefer them with the jackets on, and somewhat

hard in the middle--with the bones in. A potato pie is believed to

invigorate the sexual functions.

New Potatoes contain as yet no citric acid, and are hard of digestion,

like sour crude apples; their nutriment, as Gerard says, is sadly

windy, the starch being immature, and not readily acted on by the

saliva during mastication. The longer I live, said shrewd Sidney

Smith, the more I am convinced that half the unhappiness in the

world proceeds from a vexed stomach, or vicious bile: from small

stoppages, or from food pressing in the wrong place. Old

friendships may be destroyed by toasted cheese; and tough salted

meat has led a man not infrequently to suicide.

A mature Potato yields enough citric acid even for commercial

purposes; and there is no better cleaner of silks, cottons, and

woollens, than ripe Potato juice. But even of ripe Potatoes those that

break into a watery meal in the boiling are always found to prove

greatly diuretic, and to much increase the quantity of urine.

By fermentation mature Potatoes, through their starch and sugar,

yield a wine from which may be distilled a Potato spirit, and from it

a volatile oil can be extracted, called by the Germans, Fuseloel.

This is nauseous, and causes a heavy headache, with indigestion,

and biliary disorders together with nervous tremors. Chemically it is

amylic ether.

Also when boiled with weak sulphuric acid, the Potato starch is

changed into glucose, or grape sugar, which by fermentation yields

alcohol: and this spirit is often sold under the name of British


A luminosity strong enough to enable a bystander to [447] read by

its light issues from the common Potato when in a state of

putrefaction. In Cumberland, to have taities and point to dinner, is

a figurative expression which implies scanty fare. At a time when

the duty on salt made the condiment so dear that it was scarce in a

household, the persons at table were fain to point their Potatoes at

the salt cellar, and thus to cheat their imaginations. Carlyle asks in

Sartor Resartus about an unknown condiment named 'point,' into

the meaning of which I have vainly enquired; the victuals potato

and point not appearing in any European cookery book whatever.

German ladies, at their five o'clock tea, indulge in Potato talk

(Kartoffel gesprach) about table dainties, and the methods of

cooking them. Men likewise, from the four quarters of the globe, in

the days of our childhood, were given to hold similar domestic

conclaves, when:--

Mr. East made a feast,

Mr. North laid the cloth,

Mr. West brought his best,

Mr. South burnt his mouth

Eating a cold Potato.

With pleasant skill of poetic alliteration, Sidney Smith wrote in

ordering how to mix a sallet:--

Two large Potatoes passed through kitchen sieve,

Unwonted softness to a salad give.

And Sir Thomas Overbury wittily said about a dolt who took credit

for the merits of his ancestors: Like the Potato, all that was good

about him was underground.