Weird Science

Why is the potato so popular?

Alcohol and famine contributed to the potato’s popularity. For 250 years this root vegetable has saved Norwegians from hunger and scurvy. Not even modern diet fads, such as various low-carb diets, can wean the average Norwegian off the humble spud.

Illustration of a so-called potato pastor, who used their influence to make the potato part of the staple food in Norway.
THE POTATO – ROOT VEGETABLE OF THE PEOPLE: The so-called potato pastors contributed significantly to spreading the message of the potato to average Norwegians. Also, the fact that the potato was used for liquor production didn’t exactly harm the potato’s popularity with the common man.
Tini Malitius (illustration)

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“The potato originated in the Andes in Latin America. They had been growing potatoes for 10,000 years when the first Europeans arrived,” says Kirsti Lothe Jacobsen. “These early explorers brought the potato to Europe, first to Portugal, from where it spread. This was in 1567. But it took a while before the potato arrived in Norway, around 1750.”

Lothe Jacobsen is Senior Academic Librarian at the Law Library of the University of Bergen Library. In 2008, when the United Nations declared the International Year of the Potato, she curated an exhibition about the potato’s history in Norway.

Who first brought the potato to Norway?

“Mainly pastors and the military, who travelled around Europe and picked up that the potato was both delicious and nutritious. The pastors grew potatoes in their parsonage, which was the norm in Western Norway in the early days of the potato in Norway. This is how the expression potato pastors arose, because they spread the message of the potato from the pulpit. This was often their most important message, as there was plenty of scurvy and vitamin C deficiency in Norway at the time. Potato is a great cure for this. Add to this that the potato is easily cultivated in Norwegian climate and soil. The potato pastors knew how important the potato was for the survival of their congregation.”

But most people at the time did not see it this way?

“No. In the beginning there was fierce resistance against the potato. Rumour had it that potato eaters were at risk of leprosy. But the pastors gradually convinced people about the merits of the potato. But it was only during the Napoleonic Wars in the early Nineteenth century that the potato got fully integrated in the Norwegian diet. The British navy blocked the seas around Norway, which led to reduced grain imports from Denmark and subsequent famine. So our ancestors learned that grain could easily be replaced by potatoes and thus Norwegians love affair with the humble spud was born.”

And suddenly the potato became a culinary hit?

“Oh yes. Not the least when it was discovered that the potato was excellent for producing booze. Then the potato quickly rose in popularity. In 1816 the Norwegian parliament, Stortinget, passed a law prohibiting the production of liquors, expect for grain-based variants. This did, however, lead to a flourishing of potato cultivation. Then, during World War II, the potato rose in prominence again, when most people used their gardens for potato cultivation. Those who didn’t have a garden cultivated potatoes indoors, using pots and pans.”

Why has the potato been so important for Norway and the Norwegians?

“The potato is hardy and can be grown even in Norway’s harsh climate, even in many remote places of the country. Also, let us not forget how nutritious the potato is. Norway was once a poor country, so if there was a crop failure, say when cultivating corn, the potato came to the rescue.”

What does the future hold for the potato?

“Today the potato fights it out with modern imports, such as rice or pasta, in the shopping aisles. Some nutrition experts have also made the potato the villain in the fight against obesity. And Norwegians do eat far less potatoes now than in the past. In 1959 the average Norwegian consumed about 88 kilos of potatoes a year. By 2007 this number had fallen to 22 kilo annually per Norwegian. At the same time, there has been an increase in manufactured potato products, such as chips, crisps and other variants, to the order of 36 kilos a year per person. Personally I believe that the potato will always remain a staple of the Norwegian diet. If we get a food crisis again in the future, I believe that the potato will always come to the rescue and ensure the health and wellbeing of Norwegians.”

(Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Ole Drønen.)