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Rebecca Earle

Potatoes originated in the mountainous Andes but are now a ubiquitous global food, eaten in every continent, every day, by millions of people. Their spread from South America to the entire world demonstrates the concrete connections between European colonization of the Americas in the 16th century and how people everywhere eat today. At the same time, while the potato was traveling the world, it remained an essential resource for Andean people caught in the maelstrom of colonialism. Potatoes had long been eaten in the Andes, and Spanish American colonial society connected eaters and their characteristic foodstuffs: for settlers, potatoes were often dismissed as “a certain food eaten by Indians,” even if the tubers sometimes also graced their own tables. After the ending of colonial rule in the early 19th century, the potato’s fortunes have oscillated between nationalistic celebration and continued disdain. The potato’s complex and surprising history reveals the protean nature of this modest root, able to encapsulate profound changes in social and political organization, whether in 18th-century Europe or post-Soviet Russia. It reminds us of the centrality of eating to human history and highlights the important role played by ordinary people—smallholders, peasant farmers, imaginative cooks—in making history.