Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Leprosy in the time of Potatoes.

January 8

Gilbert White (1720-1793) was an English cleric and naturalist whose home was Selborne in Hampshire. Much of his detailed observation of the natural world (and the human one) was recorded in letters he wrote to other naturalists and scientists, and these were compiled in a book called The Natural History of Selborne. In a letter he wrote on this day in 1778, he mused on the possible causes of leprosy (particularly the dietary) – and in the course of this gives us a strong clue as to the timing of the acceptance of the potato as a useful crop in England.

To The Honourable Daines Barrington

Selborne, Jan. 8, 1778.

Dear Sir,
In all ages the leprosy has made dreadful havoc among mankind…. Some centuries ago this horrible distemper prevailed all Europe
over; and our forefathers were by no means exempt, …. It must therefore, in these days, be, to an humane and thinking person, a matter of equal wonder and satisfaction, when he contemplates how nearly this pest is eradicated … This happy change perhaps may have originated and been continued from the much smaller quantity of salted meat and fish now eaten in these kingdoms; from the use of linen next the skin; from the plenty of better bread; and from the profusion of fruits, roots, legumes, and greens, so common in every family. … Three or four centuries ago, before there were any enclosures, sown-grasses, field-turnips, or field-carrots, or hay, all the cattle which had grown fat in summer, and were not killed for winter-use, were turned out soon after Michaelmas to shift as they could through the dead months; so that no fresh meat could be had in winter or spring…. But agriculture is now arrived at such a pitch of perfection, that our best and fattest meats are killed in the winter; and no man need eat salted flesh, unless he prefers it, that has money to buy fresh…. One cause of this distemper might be, no doubt, the quantity of wretched fresh and salt fish consumed by the commonalty at all seasons as well as in Lent; …. Potatoes have prevailed in this little district, by means of premiums, within these twenty years only; and are much esteemed here now by the poor, who would scarce have ventured to taste them in the last reign.

It was an interesting turnaround for the potato – to be given as an example of the profusion of healthy vegetables available for the poor, and thereby contributing to the disappearance of leprosy. One of the things that delayed the adoption of the potato in Europe was the belief that it might cause leprosy - although this may well have been propaganda on the part of clerics who feared that what it would really do would be to precipitate a distracting lust amongst their flock. Many fruits and vegetables introduced from the New World were initially accused of being aphrodisiacs (the tomato and chocolate also for example) - the motto seemed to be ‘If in doubt, don’t trust it.’

Cookbooks of the eighteenth century do contain recipes for ‘potatoes’, but often this means the sweet potato. It is not always possible to be certain which potato is being referred to in a recipe. Sometimes the ‘ordinary’ white potato was referred to as the Virginia potato, or Irish potato or white potato – but ‘Spanish potato’ could mean either variety.

Which type of potato do you think Mrs Elizabeth Raffald expects you to use in this recipe from The Experienced English Housewife (1769)?

To scollop Potatoes.
Boil your potatoes, then beat them fine in a bowl with good cream, a lump of butter and salt. Put them into scolloped shells, make them smooth on top, score them with a knife. Lay thin slices of butter on the top of them, put them in a Dutch oven to brown before the fire. Three shells is enough for a dish.
[P.S. There are more historic potato recipes HERE.]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Polite Potatoes.

Quotation for the Day …

What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow. A.A. Milne.


Liz + Louka said...

Well, if I were making those scollop potatoes, I'd be using ordinary white potatoes. I don't like sweet potatoes so much with cream. But who knows?

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Liz/Louka - I agree, I'd be pretty sure white potatoes are intended, but Mrs R doesnt say, so we cant be certain.