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Potatoes

Crops for justice, empire, & tax resistance

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

2 min read.
photo of purple potato flowers with yellow stamens by Keith Weller via wikipedia & the usda

I've been thinking a lot about the farming community I wrote about in my flash fiction story The Laundress & the Fungal Growth. Specifically, I've been thinking about what they might farm, and how it might impact local trade.

I mentioned beans, walnuts and soapwort, and came up with a fantastical fungus, I haven't done a lot of thinking about their crops. Since I read an entire (excellent) book about species that changed the world, I decided to dig deeper into some of the more interesting ones to see what inspiration I could find.

Quick Facts

War Resistant

One of the obscure reasons that potatoes make an awesome crop for peasants is that because it is a tuber — with the important part underground — it could survive being trampled by invading armies. For this reason, every war between the Seven Years War to WWII led to more potato fields being planted. They're also relatively easy to hide from tax collectors.

Imperial Interventions

The domestication of potatoes required remarkably little human intervention. That said, the first domesticated, locally adapted, traditional varieties of potato were developed north of Lake Titicaca, but they didn't really spread until the Tiwanaku came to power. Potatoes (along with quinoa and llamas) had a significant role to play in the growth of populations (and social complexity) in the region.

God Given

There is a fascinating Andean myth about the discovery of potatoes. The creator god has a favored people, but there are also some mountain folks the god didn't bless as much — their mountain was home to evil genii. When the genii escaped, the mountain people fled and conquered the favored people of the lowlands. Everybody submits except the prince, who catches the attention of the creator god, who whimsically decides to help — by showing him where to find special seeds: potatoes. The conquerors ate the seeds and leaves, got sick, and got kicked out. Later, the lowland people discover that the tubers are delicious and nutritious.

Tasty Taxes

The Inca used chuño as a form of currency. Chuño looks sort of like a jelly donut but is basically a potato that's been freeze-dried over the course of many nights and a lot of work: it's left out to freeze (repeatedly), then washed in a cold river, then stomped on (in nets) to get rid of the skins, and then left in the sun to dry. Andean peasants paid their taxes in chuño, which let Incan leaders pay mercenaries and laborers; it functioned sort of like Roman grain.


📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy my previous newsletters about obscure cuisines or how ancient taxes functioned as emergency food stores.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

🥔 Do you have a favorite story about potatoes or other awesome vegetables? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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