The controversial potato

As I have mentioned before, I am having a bit of a clean out and disposing of myriad things I will never look at again. It is a painful process, especially as I have come to the conclusion that the tens of thousands of slides, which really do not scan very well, are completely useless and although I will keep some, the majority have to be dumped – how I hate changes in technology! And I am whittling down the books, but as I delve deeper in the recesses of the book shelves I keep discovering fascinating volumes that demand a quick browse. And so today’s post is a couple of ancient observations on potatoes.

pot lady cristl2

William Cobbet was journalist and reformer who went to prison for his beliefs and travelled to the USA. In 1829, a few years before his death, William Cobbet published  ‘The English Gardener’  from which this is taken:

‘As a mere vegetable or sauce, as the country people call it, it does very well to qualify the effects of fat meat, or to assist in the swallowing of quantities of butter. There appears to be nothing unwholesome about it, and when the sort is good, it is preferred by many people to some other vegetables of the coarser kind..’

I found this amusing because I was always teased about the tiny amount of butter I put on my spuds when I was in Ireland – I was often given the impression that potatoes were a side dish for butter – obviously the Irish are just following tradition!

pot blue danube

In ‘The Gardener’s Companion’ (1936) edited by Miles Hadfield, there is a section ‘Gardening for Epicures’ written by  E A Bunyard on potatoes. Edward Ashdown Bunyard (1878–1939 – through suicide at the onset of WWll) was the foremost apple expert of his age and a distinguished gastronome who had very forthright views.

‘If no one has already done so I must write my vegetable interpretation of history, and in that volume the potato will play a leading part. ‘The Effect of the Potato on Anglo-American Relationship’ will describe how the prolific potato trebled Ireland’s population, and then when famine and disaster came upon that unhappy country its citizens took shelter under the Stars and Stripes. There they fanned the dying embers of hatred against the old country with a result that is with us to-day. Or again – ‘The Potato and Prussia.’ By Frederick the Great’s potato policy the barren lands of Pomerania and Prussia were compulsorily planted with the new vegetable. To this is due the predominance of Prussia in the German state, and all that has followed from that. No one, after reading these compelling chapters, will regard a potato as a mere vegetable, but rather as an instrument of destiny.’


‘Potatoes have had an effect too, I fancy, upon literature; the carbohydrate style is easily distinguished from the protein. The Greeks knew no potatoes, and so could write their dramas without need of preface three times as long to explain them. Wine, meat and bread have always produced the best literature.’

He obviously did not consider bread as a source of starch but he did have some odd views such as his belief that eating bananas lead to laxity in taste and intellect! He continues..

‘The potato, however, has its place for the illiterate and those who can dispose of starch in quantity. Two schools of thought exist, the floury and the waxy, Montagues and Capulets always.

I am a Capulet in this matter, much preferring waxy potatoes, a problem when I was in Ireland where the floury reigns supreme. He does, however, go on to recommend, for boiling, ‘British Queen’ and ‘Kerr’s Pink’ which are still very much favoured in Ireland today.

‘ I may as well confess that the floury potato, since schoolboy days, has lost its calling for me, but I will try to treat it fairly. Having watched carefully the tasting of boiled potatoes by those who have made it a life study, I have read in their eyes the appreciation of excellence and, indeed, upon occasion, rapture. The boiled potato is then, deserving of careful thought. All authorities agree that ‘in their skins’ is the correct and sole method to preserve flavour but even in the boiling I find some lack of refinements. I have before me a grave and serious work called The Dinner Question, by Tabitha Tickletooth*. A fantasy, you think? By no means. Published by Routledge, The Broadway, Ludgate, London, 1872-80. Indeed it has a frontispiece of the great lady herself, looking, I admit, suspiciously like George Robey as a pantomime dame.


Tabitha Tickletooth **


George Robey in panto garb **

‘On potatoes, however, Tabitha shows the authority of a master-hand. I am obliged to condense. ‘ How to boil a potato. Carefully select them of equal size, and put them into a saucepan with a tablespoonful of salt and just sufficient cold water to cover them: for if there be too large a quantity they must necessarily remain too long in the water before they boil, and consequently break before they are done. When they have boiled for five minutes pour off the hot water and replace it with cold and half a tablespoonful of salt. Neither simmer now gallop, but boil steadily with the cover on, three-quarters of an hour.’ ‘A footnote explains that the cooking of the cold water affects the periphery only, and retards its progress to complete cooking while the centre, not affected, gets the longer cooking it needs”

Makes sense really although you could always cut up the potatoes! But it would address the problem when some spuds dissolve in the water before they have cooked through. There’s nothing new I guess!



  • What an amazing name!

** images from the web

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9 Comments on “The controversial potato”

  1. joy
    August 4, 2016 at 7:47 am #

    what wonderful old books but I can see your not getting all your work set out for the day done lol ….. I do things like that .

  2. susurrus
    August 4, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    A potato often means rapture for me – floury or waxy, each in its place. I put it down to having an Irish great grandma. I’ve never thought of it as to ‘assist in the swallowing of quantities of butter’ before, but William Cobbet has a point.

  3. derrickjknight
    August 5, 2016 at 9:42 am #

    I regularly scan both slides and negatives going back to the early 60s. What equipment do you use?

    • thebikinggardener
      August 5, 2016 at 10:49 am #

      I have not used it for years but was not happy with it. I will have to get it out again and see if I can use it better. Was expensive at the time so probably worth about 28p now!

      • derrickjknight
        August 5, 2016 at 10:57 am #

        Mine is an Epson Perfection V750 PRO – I’ve had it 9 years – no doubt it has been upgraded now, but I would recommend it

  4. RMW
    August 5, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

    I am unabashedly a potato lover. On a recent trip I realized one day I had eaten different forms of potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner! Scanning your slides shouldn’t be that difficult… I have scanned some on my Epson flatbed using the transparency feature. Maybe you just need a new scanner or updated software!

    • thebikinggardener
      August 5, 2016 at 5:18 pm #

      I have to say that I don’t eat that many potatoes! I reckon I eat more onions than spuds. But when I grow them I eat more though I do love the first early potatoes and do enjoy baked spuds. I have looked and my scanner is Minolta Dimage Elite 5400. It only takes 4 at a time and I seem to remember that the slides themselves, which flex, were an issue. But I will have another play this weekend.

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