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You Say Potato . . . I Say Pomme de Terre

by Meredith Mullins on December 12, 2016

Potatoes on French market shelves, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Potatoes taking their rightful place on French market shelves
© Meredith Mullins

How France’s Parmentier Changed the Cultural Heritage of the Potato

Imagine . . .

a world without mountains of crispy French fries,

a holiday dinner minus fluffy clouds of mashed potatoes,

a steak without a baked potato dripping with sour cream,

a plate begging for a huddle of new potatoes with a hint of parsley and butter that launches pomme de terre into the strata of haute cuisine,

silence instead of the crunch of a potato chip while watching a ball game.

The wonderful world of food would be quite different without the versatile potato.

Stuffed baked potatoes, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (© Bruskov/iStock.)

The overstuffed baked potato
© Bruskov/iStock

French Roadblocks in the Potato’s Cultural Heritage

As we savor the delicious variations of potato, we don’t often think of its lineage—its cultural heritage.

But, if you’re eating a potato creation in France, a moment of tribute is in order, with a particular thank you to a pomme de terre hero—Antoine-Augustin Parmentier.

The cultural heritage of the potato in France did not have an auspicious beginning.

Potato-less cuisine was the norm for the French prior to 1785. While some parts of the world had been introduced to potatoes for many years (or thousands of years in its homeland Peru), the French did not embrace the potato’s virtues.

Potatoes were considered, at best, food for farm animals. At worst, people believed the underground tubers caused leprosy.

Fields of potato, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © P. Wollinga/iStock.)

Potato fields
© P. Wollinga/iStock

Parmentier: A Potato Hero

One man changed potato history in France: Antoine-Augustin Parmentier.

He is honored with a Paris metro stop (where you can learn about the history of the potato), a street name, and several statues in France.

Paris metro stop Parmentier, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Learning about pomme de terre history at the Paris Metro Stop Parmentier
© Meredith Mullins

He is also honored by being named in several French dishes that feature potatoes such as potage Parmentier (potato and leek soup) and anything Parmentier (usually something mixed with mashed potatoes, like hachis Parmentier, which is ground meat and mashed potatoes, similar to Shepherd’s pie).

Hachis parmentier (Shepherd's Pie), showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © mikafotostok/iStock.)

Hachis Parmentier (mashed potatoes and minced meat)
© mikafotostok/iStock

His grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery is ringed with potato plants and, almost always, has a few potatoes placed on the gravestone ledges in tribute.

Who was Parmentier?

a. A health food promoter
b. A serious scientist
c. A hobnobber with celebrities and royalty
d. A master marketer
e. All of the above

The answer, for such a complex character, is of course “All of the above” . . . and more.

Statue of Parmentier by Albert Roze at the Parmentier metro stop, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Statue of Parmentier giving potatoes to a peasant (by Albert Roze)
© Meredith Mullins

Parmentier was a pharmacist by trade, but, while in the army, he was captured by the Prussians during the Seven Years War.

During his imprisonment, his diet consisted almost solely of potatoes. To his surprise, he realized the tuber must be nutritious because he stayed healthy. Also to his surprise, he discovered they were pretty darn tasty (no thanks to the prison chef).

When he was released and returned to Paris, he made it his mission to alert the French to the benefits of the potato.

He did research and wrote papers, with seductive titles such as “Inquiry into Nourishing Vegetables that in Times of Necessity Could Be Substituted for Ordinary Food.”

When the papers didn’t quite convince the public, he used his master marketing skills.

Painting of Antoine Parmentier by François Dumont, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Painting by Françoise Dumont.)

Painting of Parmentier with a bouquet of potato blossoms (hanging at Chateau Versailles)
By François Dumont

He planted a field of potatoes in the city and posted guards so that people would think the plants were valuable. He was also clever enough to give the guards the night off so that people could steal the plants and begin to grow them as the valuable treasures they were.

He hosted sumptuous dinner parties for the Paris notables (including Benjamin Franklin) that featured a variety of potato dishes for their dining pleasure.

For his final marketing push, he gave bouquets of potato blossoms to the king and queen. He won their favor, resulting in a royal decree that the potato was now an acceptable vegetable in France.

Three kinds of potatoes, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

Three popular potatoes of the more than 300 varieties grown in France
© Meredith Mullins

A Rich Resource

Annabelle—Amandine—Belle de Fontenay—Charlotte—Chérie—Ratte—Rosella—Bintje—Marabel—Monalisa—Nicola—Agata

These are not starlet stage names. They are the names of just a few of the 300 varieties of potato grown in France.

Thanks to Parmentier’s research, we now know that potatoes are rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly Vitamins B and C, magnesium, and potassium.

And thanks to Parmentier’s tireless work on behalf of the potato, France now produces more than six million tons of potatoes each year and is the primary exporter to other European countries.

Roasted potatoes, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

The traditional French roasted potatoes
© Meredith Mullins

A Lasting Friendship with the Potato

“The potato has now none but friends,” Parmentier wrote in one of his last books. His potato work was done.

The friendship is lasting. Today, most everyone in France (and beyond) is a friend of the potato, as we pay tribute to its cultural heritage by munching our French fries, potato chips, and Parmentier dishes.

The “Oh, I see” moment for me is about taking a moment to thank the dedicated hero of the pomme de terre story in France.

Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in . . . even if it’s potatoes.

A tile representation of the potato plant at Parmentier Metro Station in Paris, showing the cultural heritage of the potato in France. (Image © Meredith Mullins.)

A tile tribute to the potato at the Parmentier Metro Station in Paris
© Meredith Mullins

To read a similar story about one person’s quest to bring a food to Paris (in this case, kale), go to The Kale Project.

For a great recipe for potato leek soup, try David Lebovitz’s version. 

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

 
Comments:

7 thoughts on “You Say Potato . . . I Say Pomme de Terre

  1. Meredith, Your article made me push my lunchtime up by an hour. Now if I could only get my hands on a few tubers . . .

    I’ll also make it a point to hop off at the Parmentier station next time I’m in Paris. What a lovely contrast to the dungeon-like subway stations in my town.

    As always your dispatch was an inspiration.

    Take care,

    Ann

  2. Thank you, Meredith! I printed out a copy–complete with copyright marks, of course–for the director of food services at Canterbury Woods, in Pacific Grove, the independent seniors community where I now live. He takes personal interest in the food and is always open to new ideas. I’m pretty sure this info on Parmentier will be new to him!

    • Dear Barbara,
      Thank you for spreading the word about both Parmentier and the benefits of the potato. I hope the Canterbury Woods director thinks of lots of ways to add potatoes to the menu.

      Happy holidays,

      Meredith

  3. Lovely, Meredith! Now I know who’s honored with Potage Parmentier. I remember as a teenager being certain that the potato deserved a place at the top of the food list because there are SO MANY wonderful and different ways we eat ’em, including frites and potato chips. My appreciation for other lovely potato dishes has grown over the years. Your list covers it pretty well and expresses it deliciously.
    Happy Holidays and best wishes for another year of great adventures and wonderful images.

    • Dear Jamie,
      It’s true … the potato is so wonderfully versatile. I really applaud Monsieur Parmentier’s persistence. He probably didn’t know we Americans would be so liberal with butter and cheese and sour cream, but, hey, that’s our own way of being creative.

      Happy holidays to you also. All the best for 2017.

      With best wishes,

      Meredith

  4. Dear Pamela,
    Thank you for diving into my potato adventures. I so admire Parmentier. A man of true conviction.

    He was French and lived from 1737 to 1813 (his love of potatoes paid off in longevity). He convinced Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of the value of potatoes. Sadly, this was shortly before the French Revolution, so the king and queen did not get to enjoy potatoes for long.

    Thank you for writing . . . and happy holidays,

    Meredith

  5. Bien vu, ma chere Meredith! Great idea, interesting facts and super photos especially by you…. But I’m curious: what are his dates and regional origin and which royal couple did he seduce with his “patates”?

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