There are pivotal points in history: moments when the world changed for ever. One such mom- ent was in 1987, when my eldest brother came home from college and did two revolutionary things.
First, he brought a girlfriend to stay for the weekend. Second, they made spaghetti bolognese. Witnessing a can of tomatoes being added to minced beef was more shocking to me than my mother allowing them to sleep in the same bedroom.
Generations of table etiquette were undone as we turned over our forks and twirled the spaghetti, gamely playing along for the guest.
It was our first potato-less dinner and Ireland has never looked back. Potato consumption has fallen by nearly 40pc since, with pasta and rice colonising the carbohydrate space on the plate.
Yet at times like these, during recessions and wars, I look out at the field where long ago my parents ploughed, sowed and harvested the humble tuber, and wonder: Could any of us grow a potato now?
This week, the World Potato Congress took place at the RDS in Dublin. The conversations were more intense than usual as Brexit and the war in Ukraine strain food-supply chains. Food security is no longer just an issue for developing countries.
People often resented the grants paid to farmers from the massive EU agriculture budget, but that policy was driven by post-war food security anxiety. As memories of starvation and rationing receded, we wallowed in globalised complacency, gorging on cheap food, watching obesity rates rise and farmers being driven out of business.
Despite endless complaints about food prices increasing, in truth, food keeps getting cheaper.
Sit tight for some numbers. A recent study for the Irish Farmers’ Association ( IFA) by economist Jim Power noted that, over the past 11 years, the average retail price of food fell by 9pc, even though overall consumer prices increased by 13pc.
Between January 2010 and December 2021, the average retail price of vegetables declined by 8.5pc, frozen vegetables by almost 20pc and potatoes by 14.6pc. So yes, prices will go up as the costs of production – fertiliser, fuel, labour and electricity – increase, but only after an era of crazily cheap food.
Food exposes the persistently wide gap between people’s words and actions. People say they disapprove of food air-miles and want to eat local produce. Then watch as they drive 10 miles to save 10 cent in a supermarket that imports vegetables from the other side of the world.
While poorer people spend a larger portion of their income on food and are therefore more vulnerable to price increases, the cheap-food demands of the average consumer expose a visceral failure to join the dots between climate change, food security and nutrition.
The potato is the typical victim of these structural upheavals, representing both every single problem and the unsurprisingly simple solution: eat more spuds – Irish spuds. It will make the world and your life better, and you won’t get better value for nutrition.
I recently chatted with potato grower Barry Mitchell, of Hill Farm, near Navan, Co Meath. He, his brother Padraig and son Gavin represent the third and fourth generations of Mitchells to farm this land.
In Jim Power’s analysis for the IFA, he identified aggressive supermarket competition as a key factor driving down prices. Cheap imports from the UK, which continue under the Northern Ireland Protocol, also put severe pressure on the Irish product. He argues convincingly that regulations to ban retail practices such as below-cost selling are needed.
But Barry notes two other facets of consumer behaviour influencing the market. One is labelling. People often think they’re buying Irish potatoes – or many other Irish food products – but labelling is either obscure or misleading. The old trick is “packed in Ireland” when the food originates elsewhere.
He advises customers to do their best to buy from smaller vegetable shops that are more likely to have bought locally-produced spuds. But the main issue is the general decline in potato eating in the mistaken belief they’re a hassle to cook. In fact, potatoes don’t take that much longer than rice, especially brown rice, and if you cut them up and steam them, they’re done in no time (boiling in water is very 1980s; steaming – especially Kerr’s Pinks – is the only way).
Barry observed a potato popularity peak during lockdown when people began experimenting with cooking. His daughters followed TikTok channels demonstrating the extraordinary simplicity and versatility of the potato.
Sure, throw one in the oven while watching another episode of Bridgerton, add nothing but coleslaw, baked beans or good old butter and salt and you’ve got a gorgeous meal for half-nothing.
Summer isn’t summer without potato salad ( mashed, with salad cream and scallions in our house). There’s no other product as cheap, nutritious, sustainable and easy to cook.
But anyone who works with food recognises that many people have genuinely forgotten how to cook these simple dishes, despite the popularity of cookery programmes. Barry thinks cookery has to be taught in schools since children so rarely see it at home.
Of course, any politician who advised people to cook spuds to cope with inflation would be eaten alive themselves.
Everything must be the Government’s fault and the only solution is more money.
But one of the few things we alone can control in life is the food we put into our mouths. So, this weekend, eat an Irish spud and help save the world.