Potatoes Were Pig Feed, Till We Learned How To Cook Them
Potatoes are hard lumps we dig up from the dirt, and in general, early humans knew hard underground lumps aren't food. It took some effort to get people eating potatoes.
Frederick the Great of Prussia was one king who cared a lot about getting people to eat potatoes (and also turnips, another hard underground lump). One fun story says he popularized potatoes by declaring them royal vegetables that peasants were banned from growing. Then he told his guards to look the other way as peasants slipped into the royal gardens, stole his taboo potatoes, and planted them in their own gardens.
That fun story probably never happened for real. We have records of Frederick's large-scale pro-potato campaigns, which would surely have been more successful than baiting a black market among 18th-century peasants who often lacked a choice on which crops to farm. Plus, alternate versions of the story substitute in different kings, always a sign you're reading about a legend. The following fun potato story, however, really happened.
This took place in the early 20th century. By this time, we all knew potatoes were tasty food (Ireland, for example, came to depend so much on potatoes that potato blight sparked mass starvation). Idaho potatoes were an exception. Idaho potatoes just didn't seem edible no matter how hard you cooked them. Their massive size was the problem—that and their thick skins. Since people didn't buy them, farmers fed them to pigs.
Then head of dining at the Northern Pacific Railway Hazen Titus said, "Hold on. Yeah, these potatoes stay raw if you just pop them in boiling water for a few minutes. But has anyone tried cooking them any other way?" And he found that baking the potatoes for two hours did the trick.
He bought the raw potatoes for next to nothing, and to really get people talking about the finished product, he promoted his baked potatoes with postcards and giant billboards. You expect that sort of advertising blitz from a fast food chain maybe, not a railroad, which primarily sells seats, not food. But Titus realized he'd stumbled on something great. Today, of course, Idaho potatoes are considered the best potatoes. Leading Idaho farmers to say the following accurate but inane slogan: "If it don't say 'Idaho,' it's not an Idaho potato."
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Top image: Mark James Miller