‘Baked potato saved my life’, sang Matt Lucas, in a fundraising video for the NHS that brought smiles to faces across the UK. The joyful silliness helps explain its appeal. Of course a baked potato can’t save anyone’s life. Or can it?
Leo Tolstoy thought it could. In War and Peace, Tolstoy’s unhappy protagonist Pierre Bezukhov finds peace in a warm, salty baked potato. For Tolstoy, the value of human life lay precisely in its prosaic ordinariness, in the small virtues that bind us together, and nothing represents this better than a baked potato. Pierre’s restorative encounter with a potato, proffered by a fellow prisoner as the two languish in French captivity, allows him to reconnect to other people, and to the universe. The simple potato sprinkled with salt encapsulates Tolstoy’s message: value other people and try to be grateful for what you have. Munching his potato, Pierre muses that he has never tasted anything better in his life. Afterwards, he looks up at the starry sky. A deep sense of connection overwhelms the loneliness and isolation that for so long dogged his existence. Perhaps Pierre’s baked potato didn’t quite save his life, but it gave him a sense of purpose.
I’ve been studying potatoes for longer than I care to remember. Once you start looking for them, potatoes are everywhere: in Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism, in Adam Smith’s celebration of the free market, in the United Nation’s plans to increase food security, in the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and in the kitchens of people all around the world. Potatoes turn out to be connected to some of the most important features of the modern world, such as the rise of individualism or the formation of the welfare state. Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato traces these connections.
At the same time, potatoes also bring comfort. It’s hard to imagine Matt Lucas dedicating his song to a carrot or a turnip. Since potatoes began to spread around the world in the sixteenth century, they have provided sustenance and security for ordinary people from Lancashire to northern China. When villagers in the Alpine hamlet of Törbel began to cultivate potatoes in the eighteenth century, mortality declined—and this experience has been replicated in many parts of the world. A recent study concludes that potatoes account for an incredible 25 per cent of the world’s total population increase since 1700. Potatoes can save lives.
Of course, potatoes are also associated with great tragedies. The devastating famine that scourged Ireland in the 1840s is the best known, but it would be wrong to blame that catastrophe on the potato. Responsibility should be laid at the door of British colonialism, a centuries-long iniquity whose consequences continue to resonate today. To return to Matt Lucas, it’s unlikely that a baked potato offers much against the coronavirus, although some other vitamin-rich foods may strengthen the immune system. What the potato offers at this moment is comfort and a sense of connection to others. ‘When Life Gives You Quarantine, Plant Potatoes’, ran a headline in the New York Times in April. Not a bad suggestion.