Photograph by Ted Murphy
Photograph by Ted Murphy

Are Potatoes Depressing?

Bulgarian designer Yanko Tsetkov is a master of maps.

In his irreverent Atlas of Prejudice and Atlas of Prejudice 2, he dices up the world according to who thinks what of others, which doesn’t necessarily show any of us in a positive light. In his depiction of “The World According to Americans,” for example, the continental United States appears smugly as the “Civilized World,” with Alaska labeled “Hockey Moms,” Canada, “Vegetarians,” Mexico, “Maids and Gardeners,” Russia, “Commies,” and India, “Curry.” It’s funny, in a sobering sort of way.

In a recent series—“20 Ways to Slice Europe”—Tsetkov carves Europe roughly in half according to climate, diet, and disposition. South of his line are cozy sun-drenched countries like Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. North lie chilly fog-bound Britain, Germany, the Balkans, Scandinavia, and Russia. In the sunny South, Tsetkov points out (graphically), people are loud and lazy; they eat sitting down (for hours in cafés); like olive oil and wine; and tend to be cheerful, if not euphoric. Head north and people are taciturn and hard-working; they eat on their feet and on the run; rarely take vacations; drink beer or vodka; and are at best melancholic and at worst downright depressed.

South of the line is Tomato Europe. North of the line is Potato Europe. You see where I’m going here? It’s clear from the maps. Tomatoes make you happy. Potatoes are depressing. So let’s think about potatoes.

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Photograph by Flickr user banger1977

Potatoes Blamed for Medical Maladies

Potatoes, once they left their native Peru in the 16th century, had a generally downbeat reception in the outer world. Since they looked lumpy and suspicious, they were variously blamed for leprosy, rickets, scrofula, tuberculosis, and syphilis. Presbyterian ministers in Scotland banned them on the grounds that there was no mention of them in the Bible. French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot, who should have known better, growled that the potato “cannot pass for an agreeable food,” though—everybody was always willing to foist potatoes on someone else—he argued that they might have “some value in the colonies,” where the inhabitants couldn’t afford to be picky. William Cobbett, 18th–century English journalist and social activist, called the potato a “villainous root” and blamed it for moral turpitude and sloth.

Eventually, however, the potato—filling, cheap, and easy to grow—edged its way into the European and North American diet. The British Royal Society—none of who wanted to touch potatoes themselves—nonetheless saw them as a brilliant solution to the perennial food problems of the poor, the army, the jails, the orphanages, and the insane asylums.

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Photograph by Jacqui Brown

It’s Simple: Eat Potatoes or Die

The Emperor Frederick the Great of Prussia, struggling to cope with a devastating series of crop failures, proposed potatoes as a solution for his hungry peasants. When his ungrateful subjects refused to plant them, citing repulsion (“not even dogs will eat them”), Frederick reputedly turned the tide by thundering that those who refused to plant potatoes would have their ears and noses cut off.  (An alternative story holds that he convinced doubters by publicly consuming potatoes on the balcony of the Imperial Palace, but, frankly, the first sounds more like him.)

In any case, by the mid-18th century, Prussia had lush potato fields; and by 1778, when Frederick plunged Prussia into the War of Bavarian Succession, the conflict was known as the “Potato War,” since the opposing forces spent so much time raiding potato fields.

The pro-potato faction, whatever their agenda, had the right idea: the potato is dietary gold. One medium-sized tuber contains 3 grams of protein, 2.7 grams of fiber, and 23 grams of carbohydrate—the stuff we need to run marathons—as well as about half the adult Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin C. Today the potato is #4 on the list of the world’s staple crops (trailing wheat, rice, and maize). An acre of potatoes, according to one source, can healthily feed a family of five for a year, which is something I think about these days, whenever I listen to the economic reports.

Pirates and Global Warming

So…are potatoes depressing?

Much as I’m a fan of Tsetkov’s maps, the answer is no. Scientifically, we’re talking the difference between simultaneity and causality. That is, just because two things are (or may be) happening in the same place at the same time—say, potatoes and gloomy northern Europeans—doesn’t imply a cause and effect relationship. A similar and much-publicized claim involves data showing that over the past hundred years the number of pirates has decreased while global warming has steadily been on the rise. The fallacious conclusion—that we can combat global warming if more of us become pirates—is—well, just silly.

So go ahead and eat potatoes. They’re good for you. And your psyche will be just fine.

True Fact: The Lack of Pirates Is Causing Global Warming is an article of simultaneity, causality, and pirates from Forbes.

Mapping Stereotypes and 20 Ways to Slice Europe are collections of Yanko Tsetkov’s satirical maps.

This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.