Meet France's Mr. Potato Head
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because without him there would be no French fries.
By Fiona Zublin
When Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a prisoner of war, the lesson he learned was this: Prison food is amazing.
The year was 1763, and potatoes — a fairly recent import from the Americas — were illegal in France, as they were considered dirty, diseased and unfit for human consumption. But Parmentier, a young army pharmacist, was forced to eat them while in a Prussian military prison during the Seven Years’ War, and it changed his life.
“If a thing fell on the ground, you didn’t eat it,” says John Baxter, author of Eating Eternity, who says foods grown in the ground were similarly considered dirty in a world where hunting was the sport of kings. Except for a few countries in Europe, potatoes were largely used only to nourish animals.
Parmentier is credited with convincing Paris’ medical establishment to decriminalize the potato in 1772.
Parmentier saw something else in them: a wheat substitute for France’s poor, a hospital food and a vegetable worthy of feeding royalty. A decade after he returned to Paris from the battlefield, he (and the potato) won an essay contest singing the spud’s praises. French peasants pointed out that they’d been supplementing scarce wheat with potato flour long before Parmentier brought the idea to the scientific establishment.
According to E.C. Spary’s Feeding France, Parmentier was able to propagate himself, and the potato, as symbols of the Enlightenment — two warriors battling backward received wisdom, feeding the world with science. In fact, some food historians have theorized that Parmentier’s potato bread, which was overreliant on potato starch, may have delayed the vegetable’s acceptance among some in France. He is, however, credited with convincing Paris’ medical establishment to decriminalize the potato in 1772.
The army pharmacist wasn’t just ahead of his time on edible starches: He was also forward-looking when it came to marketing. Knowing he’d have to popularize potatoes to realize his dream, he worked to make fetch happen from every angle. First he talked up the potato to the monarchs at the time, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and managed to at least convince Marie to wear potato flowers in her hair, which made them fashionable.
Parmentier once hosted a 20-course potato-themed dinner, including distilled potato liquid to drink, a splash that propelled the potato to a fame that would outlast the French monarchy by nearly two centuries and counting. He also fed his favorite tuber to foreign celebrities like the U.S. ambassador, Benjamin Franklin — imagine coming all the way to France to eat a tuber that originated in the Andes — in an attempt to up its cool factor.
Meanwhile, he was getting potatoes into the hands of the working classes with his potato patches in the Bois de Boulogne, watched over by armed guards who were explicitly instructed to take nights off and accept any and all bribes from curious gawkers. Those patches proved key to Paris when a poor wheat harvest in 1787 left peasants in need of a substitute — “and thus survived to depose Louis and Marie Antoinette two years later,” writes Baxter in Eating Eternity. Parmentier’s fever was catching: 1793 saw France’s first all-potato cookbook (and the first published by a woman), Mme. Mérigot’s La Cuisinière Républicaine.
France wasn’t the only place where potatoes were a battlefield. In 1778, Prussia and Austria got embroiled in the Kartoffelkrieg, or Potato War — also called the War of the Bavarian Succession — in which opposing generals sabotaged each other’s food supply and in which as many as 20,000 people died. Meanwhile, the huge increase in potato crops was one factor in Europe’s population explosion, from 140 million in 1750 to 266 million in 1850. Parmentier also wrote about beets and chestnuts, and helped organize the first smallpox vaccination drive. But his legacies are intertwined, and Parmentier’s role as potato Jesus is still taught in French schools.
Potatoes aren’t as basic in France as they are the the U.S. or U.K., where fries and hash browns can form a basic part of multiple daily meals. But Parmentier’s prize crop still holds some sway in cuisine, with multiple potato dishes named for Parmentier, along with a Métro station decorated with dancing potatoes and potato mosaics. Parmentier is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, in a grave surrounded by blooming potato plants. Admirers, who still make pilgrimages today, leave spuds for the spud god, adorning his tomb with the vegetable he loved.