I bought 2 kg of potatoes last weekend. Four days later, I took out the bag to peel some for dinner, and found that every single potato in the bag had shoots on it.
I spent a minute or so muttering about supermarkets and their appalling buying policies, but then I realised that, in a funny way, I felt quite happy for those potatoes. It’s cold at the moment (by Brisbane standards), but we passed the shortest day three weeks ago. In their plastic bag, deep in the darkness of my pantry, those potatoes knew that spring is only a week or so away.
We ask a lot of potatoes. There are some basic foodstuffs we expect to be on hand all year – potatoes and onions, apples and bananas, eggs and milk – yet even the humble spud is really a seasonal vegetable.
In 1949 the pioneer in World History, William H McNeill published an article on ‘The Introduction of the Potato into Ireland’ in the Journal of Modern History, based on his postgraduate work. Now that every commodity, from cod to coffee to the colour mauve, seems to have its own historian, it’s easy to miss just how innovative McNeill’s thematic approach then was. Exactly 50 years later, he returned to the topic with ‘How the Potato Changed the World’s History’, in Social Research: An International Quarterly (1999). His preoccupation is understandable, for potatoes really did transform the world.