By Mark Wieser
Many centuries ago, few Germans would have thought of using potatoes as food, only the very poorest. In fact, most potatoes were fed to livestock. While we might find that strange, it was very much a surprise to me on my first trip to Germany to find my cousins laughing that we Americans ate corn. “How primitive”, they said. “You rich Americans are eating just like the poor Italians.” In 1964, the Germans were feeding corn only to their livestock. When my aunt came to spend a summer in Texas two years later, we introduced her to corn on the cob. She returned home with a changed attitude as many Germans have since. I find it remarkable that today Germans seem to enjoy corn as much as we do.
It was initially the same with the potato.
Potatoes were simply not well received at first. With such an undesirable reputation it was left to the Germans to plant the first potatoes in the 1500s and prove otherwise. They did well and the potato began to grow in popularity. Frederick the Great is believed to have ordered all German farmers to plant them. He became known as der Kartoffelkönig or Potato King.
In India, the English found them being served at banquets around 1675. Not to be out done, the English introduced them into their settlements in Virginia. This was nearly a century after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth Rock. Since these seedlings had come from Ireland, these became known as the “Irish potatoes.” By the 1800s the Europeans were convinced it had become the most important new food ever discovered, but to their surprise, so also thought the Qing dynasty of China. There, it had, centuries earlier become a delicacy of the imperial family.
The potato caused a demographic and cultural change in some parts of the world. This was made most clear in Ireland where succeeding years of potato crop failures caused serious consequences for large segments of the population – we know it as the Irish Potato Famine. That great tragedy began the same year Prince Braunfels was leading the first colonist to Texas.
Today, a few politically correct historians argue that the potato permitted a handful of Europeans nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750-1950. This is serious thinking on the power of the potato. I also found interesting what the philosopher-critic Denis Diderot opined around 1751-1755, “No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy. It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.” Diderot viewed the potato as “windy.” (It caused gas.) Yet, this doesn’t seem to hinder McDonald’s from serving 9 million pounds of French Fries every day.
Be all this lofty history as it may, I want to share my Mama’s hot Potato Salad recipe with you which was a very welcome dish on our table. Served warm rather than hot, the temperature seems to bring out many of the subtleties of the ingredients that go into preparing this dish. We didn’t have it often for Mama reserved it mostly for special holidays. Being served warm, with the distinct taste of vinegar, probably endeared its remarkable flavors to me.
There may be any number of potato salads which can be served warm. Nevertheless, one should not forget that left-over potato salad older than two hours invites bacteria, particularly if the temperature is above 90ºF. This recipe should be served directly after preparing. To keep it, it must be refrigerated like any other potato salad. Remarkably, I cannot ever recall it ever being reheated as leftovers in our house.
5 medium Irish potatoes
5 strips bacon
1 medium-sized onion finely chopped
1 tbsp shortening
2 tbsp flour
3 tsp sugar
3 tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 cup water
Boil potatoes for 5 minutes in salted water. When cool enough to handle—peel and dice.
Fry bacon with shortening until crisp, break into small pieces and add to potatoes.
Sauté chopped onion in remaining fat, Add flour and blend well. Add sugar, vinegar, and salt, Cook slowly over medium to high heat until it thickens. Pour over potatoes, mix well and serve immediately.
PS. If any wish to read an interesting book about the history of potatoes, I highly recommend John Reader’s The Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History. It is truly amazing reading!