Digging the dirt on the potato 

By Karen Herland

Elizabeth Johnston, of the Marketing Department, hopes to bring the humble potato out of obscurity and into the light.

Some of the potato varieties available in the market in Puno, Peru. Magnifying glass

Some of the potato varieties available in the market in Puno, Peru.

Johnston, who has been researching the potato in her spare time, has dug up a wealth of material about this misunderstood root vegetable. She intends to publish No Small Potatoes: A Journey this fall, appropriate given that the United Nations declared 2008 the International Year of the Potato.

Johnston became interested in the subject almost by accident. An assignment in a photography class to “shoot something that had not been photographed to death” led her to the potato. As she suspected, there was very little potato art out there, except maybe those primary school stamp projects.

“There were a lot of eggplants and onions, but almost no potatoes.” The major exception was Van Gogh’s paintings of The Potato Eaters. Johnston said this series was important to him, because “these farmers were scratching the earth for their living, and he wanted to valorize that.”

Johnston, who has a background in scriptwriting and teaches business communication in the John Molson School of Business, related to that underdog association, so she continued research that took her from Peru to Prince Edward Island and, of course, Ireland. Along the way, she uncovered a few surprises.
For one, the potato is actually indigenous to Peru. Despite its link with Ireland, it arrived there quite late. Its cultivation was likely the result of explorers bringing potatoes back from South America to Europe, from Europe to the U.K. and, only after that, to North America.

Johnston also learned that potatoes were initially greeted with suspicion in Europe, since they were part of the poisonous nightshade family. It was the decision of Louis XVI to dig up his rose gardens and replace them with potato crops under armed guards that shifted public perception.

Peru now is home to an International Potato Centre, which Johnston visited, learning about the over 5,000 varieties that are maintained there, and ongoing research into the vegetable’s antioxidant properties.

Johnston also traveled to the Quechua Potato Park in Cuzco, Peru. Indigenous people established an eco-tourism centre there 10 years ago. They share organic farming methods, companion planting information and rituals.

Johnston said that whenever she mentions No Small Potatoes, people immediately tell their own stories and memories involving the potato. She’s started a blog to encourage that exchange: explore-the-possibilities.gaia.com/blog/. She remembers watching her own grandmother peeling piles of potatoes to make perogies when she was a little girl.

Today, diet gurus like Montignac and Atkins, among others, warn against the potato and champion proteins over carbohydrates.

“It’s not the potato’s fault, it’s what you put on it,” said Johnston, underscoring the nutritional value of the maligned tuber. Actually remarkably low in fat and high in nutrients like potassium and vitamin C, potatoes and milk can sustain human life indefinitely.


Concordia University