Neither prison food nor PRUSSIAN food has a good reputation, but during the Seven Years’ War the combination Antoine-Augustin Parmentier impressed. He was born in 1737, became a pharmacist in the French army and spent three years as a prisoner of war. The prison diet consisted largely of potatoes, which the Prussians grew, but the French looked on with contempt. Once freed, he made the potato his obsession.
While the spud had crossed the Atlantic (from its native South America) at the end of the 16th century, it was viewed with suspicion in many European countries. In France it was fed to pigs, but was considered suspect for human consumption. Superstition thought it was poisonous or caused leprosy – based on gnarled potatoes that resembled the stubbly appendages of lepers. The fact that potatoes grow underground, not from seeds but from tuber chunks, also obscured their reputation. Potatoes were not sold or cultivated in large quantities.
When Parmentier returned in good health after a three-year potato diet, he set to work to prove that his own experience was no anomaly.
“It’s very typical of those times,” says the historical writer Catherine Delors, who blogs about the 18th century, “when science and people blossomed and challenged old ideas.” This was during the Enlightenment and experimentation and research became the new norm. By combining this scientific viewpoint with a flair for showmanship – including publicity stunts – Parmentier put potatoes on European plates and had a dramatic impact on world history.
Parmentier first visited scientific institutions and the medical faculty in Paris. He wanted, says Delors, “an official explanation that potatoes are not as dangerous as people thought they were in France.” The famine was a recurring problem, and after the failed 1770 harvest, the Academy of Besançon offered a prize for suggestions on how to solve the problem. Parmentier won with his potato-forming essay “Study of nutritious vegetables that could replace ordinary food in times of need”, which he then developed into a more thorough study of the potential of the potato.
While his work met the relatively new scientific demands of his time, his public efforts to raise awareness of the potato were more lively. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson participated in his potato-focused dinners, where the potato was served in up to 20 courses in various forms. A copy of Parmentier’s treatise found its way into Jefferson’s library at Monticello, and it may be that Thomas Jefferson brought the fries and served them at a White House dinner.
Parmentier even asked for celebrities. After a meeting with King Louis XVI, His Majesty and Marie-Antoinette are said to have decorated their outfits with the purple flowers of the potato on their lapels and hats respectively. In 1886, the royal support also included a plot of land for growing potatoes at Sablon, then on the western edge of Paris. Parmentier surpassed his municipal farm project by hiring guards to watch the conspiracy and giving the impression that the potatoes were valuable. Fascinated city dwellers were nevertheless able to secretly help themselves to “liberate samples” when the guards retired for the evening.
The adoption of the tuber by the farmers – in the wake of Parmentiers P.T. Barnum-like stunts had a profound impact on history. The potato radically changed the productivity of French farms. Its yields were more reliable than those of wheat, and it could be grown in wheat fields while lying fallow. It thrived on many different soils and was easy to cultivate. In other countries, leaders like Catherine the Great (Russia) and King Adolf (Sweden) promoted the tuber for similar reasons. According to some estimates, potatoes doubled Europe’s calorie supply in terms of calories, marking an end to the cycle of abundance and hunger that had plagued European agriculture for centuries.
While Parmentier was an effective potato promoter, his message found resonance because it met the needs of the time. “Parmentier’s message and enthusiasm are genuine,” says Charles C. Mann, author of The Wizard and the Prophet, who describes the roots of the Green Revolution. “But he gets attention because people are looking for ways to improve agriculture. The state was very interested in fighting large populations so that they could have many soldiers and workers. “
Famine was once considered a fact of life, Mann says, and Parmentier became part of the government’s efforts to change that. France and other European countries began to institutionalize food production. In the hope of creating a healthy population of workers and soldiers, they encouraged the mass production of desirable crops and subsidized and supported farmers. The resulting population boom in Europe, driven in part by the reliable, productive potato, led to the worldwide expansion and colonisation of Europe.
The king himself acknowledged Parmentier’s efforts by granting a sinecure in 1774 to enable him to carry out his research and finally told him: “France will not forget that you have found food for the poor”. This royal liaison cost him a great deal of money in the early years of the French Revolution, when much of his property was confiscated. But he returned to society relatively quickly. After all, the revolutionaries had their own interest in feeding the population. Parmentier’s job security grew during Napoleon’s reign, when Bonaparte wanted to ensure French self-sufficiency while waging a war throughout Europe. Parmentier’s work until then had involved research into beet sugar and corn. Napoleon finally granted him the Legion of Honour.
Parmentier is still well known in France, where he is remembered as a sort of Johnny Appleseed character. A number of dishes contain his name, which is a sign that potatoes are present: Hachis Parmentier is a kind of shepherd’s pie made from minced beef with mashed potatoes. You will also find statues of Parmentier on the Somme in France and the Paris subway station that bears his name, which shows him nobly holding out a potato. When he died in 1813, he was buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Even today his property is surrounded by potato plants, and occasionally the tuber is left on the grave of the great potato promoter.