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From the Andes to Ireland, the gripping history of the humble potato

History

Feeding the People

Rebecca Earle

Cambridge University Press, 308 pages, hardback €21.50; e-book £9.38

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Imaginative book:  Rebecca Earle

Imaginative book: Rebecca Earle

Feeding the People by Rebecca Earle

Feeding the People by Rebecca Earle

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Imaginative book: Rebecca Earle

Do you remember the International Year of the Potato? In 2008, the UN, worried that the vegetable's contribution to food security had been overlooked, decided that the moment had come to show some appreciation. What a time to be alive: before the financial crash had really got going, before the western world was lurching from one political crisis to another, and long before anyone was talking about "lockdown cooking", we felt able to devote a whole year to celebrating spuds. Never such innocence again.

Or so you might think. In fact, according to the historian Rebecca Earle, the potato has played a central role both on our plates and in our politics. If this sounds a bit earnest - well, sometimes, it is. But Earle, a professor at the University of Warwick in England, makes a convincing case. Her wide-ranging, imaginative book joins a growing body of food writing that isn't just concerned with what food is, but with what it means.

And just as potatoes have been turned into everything from vichyssoise to vodka, so their significance has evolved too. Earle traces the potato's journey - courtesy of Spanish raiders in the Andes, where it had been grown for millennia - from a "food that was totally unknown to most of humanity before the 16th century" to one that's found just about everywhere today. But she's most interested in a particular moment, in 18th-century Europe, when the question of what people ate (as opposed to simply whether they ate) became intensely political - and when, as one contemporary writer put it, "newspapers discussed practically nothing but potatoes".