CHRYSTAL: Small potatoes

The mountain of books in my room currently stretches about 3 feet high. “The Savior of Europe.” “The Famine in Ireland, 1845.” “A History of the Propitious Esculent.” The “propitious esculent” is not, in fact, one of those spells that Harry Potter nerds memorized after their 18th reading of “The Prisoner of Azkaban.” It actually means “opportune edible,” and the edible in question is the potato. The same humble potato that’s made into French fries or Lay’s potato chips or, on particularly happy occasions, roasted with duck fat. The same vegetable that is peeled and shredded and cooked into hash browns to accompany a thousand diner omelets. That same subdued and unassuming legume that gets transformed into ethereal puffs of gnocchi or hearty pillows of pierogi. It is time to come out and say it: I am writing my senior thesis about potatoes.

Potatoes.

Specifically, about the introduction of the potato to France and two works of literature entirely devoted to potatoes. And when I tell people, their reactions range from amused laughs to blank gazes of confusion. Potatoes? You’re spending nine months of your life studying the most unglamorous of vegetables, the lowliest peasant of the edible kingdom?

Sure, since I’m a French major who not so secretly seeks to imitate Julia Child, the fact that I’m working on a food-related thesis is no surprise. But why not Proust’s madeleines, those charmingly plump scalloped cookies that have made their way into every corner Starbucks? Why not something as frilly and fanciful as Emma Bovary’s multi-tier wedding cake, which features pools of jam, boats made out of nut shells and a chocolate Cupid on a swing? Or, more seriously, why not write about something established and credible/inedible — like structuralism or deconstructionism or some other dry serious -ism?

My friends’ disbelief might stem from the notion that food, unlike obscure academic thought, isn’t worthy of serious academic study. Hogwash. Way back in the Roman Empire, the historian and senator Tacitus warned his countrymen of the influence food could have on political events — something that he believed strongly enough that he used his own money to buy grain for the Roman people during a shortage. Not enough for you? Check out the role the “Flour Wars” played in the French Revolution (even now, the price of bread is regulated by the French government), or, more recently, the importance of food prices in the Arab Spring. Ask your friends with Irish ancestors why their families came to America. Food starts wars, explodes population sizes, changes immigration patterns and sparks political crises.

The baguette may not yet have its portrait alongside Napoleon in the Louvre, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t played just as critical a role in shaping world events.

There’s also a sense that studying food must be delightfully pleasant, filled with endless accounts of fabulous meals in books that smell of freshly baked cookies. If only. Studying food can also mean finding oneself knee-deep in demographic data, poring over agricultural statistics from the 1700s or wading through long political petitions in illegible handwriting. Studying potatoes does not entail going home and making a nice golden gratin every night. Food is a window into culture, history and economics. But the very nature of this multi-angle approach, the lack of a clear-cut methodology, presents its own challenges.

And why potatoes? Well, as it turns out, because their modest stature and plebian roots mask a pretty interesting history. (Did you know you can live on a diet of nothing but potatoes and milk for three years, in perfect health? It’s true.) I’m curious why France adopted potatoes with only great reluctance, and even when it did, why chefs tended to disguise them in bread or porridge rather than fry them up as we do today. The literature written about potatoes is similarly colorful and strange and thought-provoking. After all, what kind of author makes a dirt-covered tuber the hero of his novel?

After all, every Yalie has his or her own potato: that strange something they’re passionate about, whether that’s a little-known Italian playwright or a subspecies of kangaroo in Australia. That’s not only what drives our academic study, it’s what makes our dinner conversations interesting and our debates lively. It’s what sends us all over the world doing research and prowling the stacks of Sterling at eleven o’clock at night. It’s the kind of passion and expertise that floors me when I hear my friends talk about their lab work or my roommate discuss her archival research. And ultimately, that potato is what brings us together.

Elizabeth Chrystal is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at elizabeth.chrystal@yale.edu .

Comments