The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman

Cover of 'The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman'

The people were famished; to sow their usual crops, was but to invite their destruction. Every seed crop, be it oats or barley, rye or wheat, might be trampled over and ruined in a day; if it escaped that hazard, the garnered harvest might be raided or burnt overnight. The vegetable crops, cabbage and parsnip, were no less vulnerable, at best they were but auxiliary foods, and there was never much of either. It was under such conditions that the potato made its entry into Ireland. Its greedy acceptance by the people was no mere accident, for it satisfied their needs as efficiently as it symbolized their helpless destruction….

In the potato, the weary and harassed cultivator had to his hand a food which was easier to prepare than any of which he had had experience; one which would feed him, his children and his livestock, out of the same cauldron, cooked on his open hearth of burning turves. There was, I believe, a still greater advantage which it offered: the potato could both be cultivated and stored in a manner which might outwit the spirit of destruction, and the malevolence of his enemy.

Weighing it at nearly 700 pages, Redcliffe Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and updated with corrections and an introduction by J. G. Hawkes in 1985, is truly, as one reviewer put it, “the Epic of the potato.” Salaman, a Fellow of the Royal Society who ran a botanical research center near Cambridge for decades, put a life’s worth of passion for his subject into this polymathic book. Published when Salaman was seventy-five, it was his only book intended for other than an audience of fellow scientists.

Although I doubt that Salaman was aware of their work as he was writing his book, it represents one of the earliest substantial examples of the multi-dimensional approaches to history advocated by the Annales School and its proponents such as Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. Its pages examine the potato from the standpoint of many different disciplines: archaeology, botany, economics, folklore, religion, cuisine, politics, agronomy, and art–with history providing the narrative spine of his account. And I am sure that more than of the few writers who have attempted similar broad studies of narrow subjects, particularly foodstuffs–such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt, Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, and Sophie and Michael Coe’s The True History of Chocolate–have taken a lesson or two from it. Larry Zuckerman, author of The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, and John Reader, who published Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent in 2009 certainly did. Indeed one reviewer of Reader’s book commented that it cites Salaman “so frequently, and leans on Salaman’s research so heavily, that it is sometimes difficult to imagine why he felt the need to write his own book on the subject at all.”

While, as Hawkes acknowledges in his introduction, many specific conclusions reached by Salaman in the course of his survey have been disproved by subsequent research, The History and Social Influence of the Potato remains, after sixty years, a work that surrounds its subject so comprehensively that there is no way for others to launch an assault on the subject without encountering it in one way or another.

2 thoughts on “The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman

  1. I didn’t know that book was neglected. I have read it a couple of times, along with most of the other titles you mentioned here. Unfortunately, single-food books, being quite popular, are getting to be a bit over-produced (hack work?). Some of them really have to stretch to do what Salaman did with grace and total scholarship. Oddly, though, Salaman concentrated on the potato in Western Europe and more or less skipped Russia, if I remember correctly.

    Is Tony Kurlansky another name for Mark Kurlansky?

  2. I wouldn’t say it’s neglected as much as relatively unknown.

    Yes, Salaman concentrates on the potato in Peru, Ireland, and England and less on its use elsewhere.

    And I’ve corrected Kurlansky’s name, thanks.

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