Potato: friend of man and beast

I’m pretty fond of potato-based foods. However, if I’d been alive in late 18th century France, chances are good that I would have needed some coaxing to eat a potato. In fact, the Commission d’agriculture et des arts published a pamphlet entirely dedicated to encouraging the public to understand the benefits of warming to the potato. Entitled Instruction sur la conservation et les usages des pommes-de-terre, this pamphlet outlines the best ways to preserve and serve potatoes to humans and livestock. Written by a team of authors including Claude-Louis Berthollet, it was produced in the Arras district, and directions are printed on the pamphlet to distribute it in every town in the district so that municipal officials could read it aloud to their citizens.

Assuming that the French government could convince farmers to start growing potatoes, the trouble then became how to store the large quantities of potatoes that would be harvested. The pamphlet authors detail seven different preservation techniques, including this method: blanch unwashed potatoes in salted water, peel and slice them, and heat them in a bakery oven. The results will be so solid and dry that they can be kept “through the centuries” in any location without undergoing any significant changes.

When it comes time to eat potatoes, the authors have this straightforward and economical preparation to recommend: steam them and add a little salt. They helpfully add that the inclusion of “butter, fat, lard, or oil, cream, milk, and honey” wouldn’t hurt if you’ve got some handy. The authors stress one of the key qualities of potatoes, which  is their ability to stretch or replace grains, an important feature to highlight when food shortages were striking the populace. To that end, instructions on how to make potato-based porridge and bread appear in this pamphlet as well.

Humans aren’t the only ones to suffer during a grain shortage, and cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, fish, and horses all could benefit from the addition of potatoes to their feed. Farmers were told to serve raw or cooked potatoes to their livestock, though they were reminded to be sure to cut up the potatoes and let them cool a bit first. One of the major points the authors make is that the addition of potatoes would allow the consumption of other types of fodder to be reduced, while helping the animals to gain weight. The comment for horses is also rather charming, stating that as long they grow accustomed to a mixture of potatoes with hay and oats in equal measure, the horses will stamp their hooves (in eager anticipation, I presume) when they see the containers of potato feed being carried toward them.

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