Eva Ekeblad and Potato Adoption in Europe.

The Google Doodle on July 10 honored Eva Ekeblad’s 293rd birthdayHer story is illustrative of how new foods get adopted and spread, in this case, the potato in Europe.

Countess Eva Ekeblad, at 22, became a member of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (founded 1739 and since the late 19th century awarders of Nobel Prizes) in 1748. Three years later, she was hence referred to as an honorary member, because of the times, women weren’t allowed full membership. She was such an enthusiast of potatoes that she decorated her hair with potato flowers occasionally.

It would be 203 years before another woman would become a member of the society. That was Lise Meitner, the Austrian physicist. The secretary at the time, scientist and Anders Celsius trained mathematician Pehr Elvius, must have signed off on her membership, possibly along with other members of the Society. Quite likely her nobility and station didn’t hurt her admittance.

Ekeblad’s husband was a member of the Swedish Parliament, and likely helped carry through/popularize some of her ideas, as did other members of the Swedish Royal Academy. That’s not to take away from her accomplishments, but is a point about her being well connected to Swedish luminaries at the time that helped her ideas take off (access is key as the story of Anna Atkins also shows). Ekeblad also managed the family estates as well (through staff, so think of her more as executive director).

Imagine Europeans seeing tomatoes and potatoes and their family resemblance to a plant many knew as a poison

Though I can’t find evidence of it, she likely knew Carl Linnaeus as he was a contemporary (she certainly knew of him, he was famous even then). He was a founding member of The Swedish Academy and now known for his legacy of the latin binary names scientists use to technically name species (Linnaeus’ skeleton is the (symbolic) type specimen for Homo sapiens, human beings). He also classified the world’s plants and at least did a thought experiment about a ‘flower clock‘ using different species time of flowers opening or closing to mark hours in a circular patch of garden.

Linnaeus also was typical of the time in Europe in that he thought the potato was poisonous because he likely was one of the people that helped classify it and he knew it was in the same family as a quite poisonous plant native to Europe, Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade. It should be stated here, as a May New York Times story points out, that Linnaeus’ desire to classify nature was one seeking human control of the natural world, seeking order within the chaos. However, nature does not fit into neat boxes as the arrival of the potato in Europe illustrates. It was similar, but had shades of distinction and nuance to deadly nightshade. Linnaeus thought of nature as more or less static, not dynamic and changing (humans today still have a hard time with that).

 

 

 

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Red potatoes. Source: Mike Mozart, Flickr. CC 2.0

Imagine Europeans seeing tomatoes and potatoes and their family resemblance to a plant many knew as a poison (though Venetian women did use nightshade extract as a beauty aid to dilate their pupils for a time it was considered fashionable – this demonstrates the idea that ‘the dose makes the poison’, though nightshade is something to be cautious with). Potatoes do produce solanine in their leaves, and tubers that have become green and/or sprouted that is harmful in too high a dose, though rarely fatal. Potatoes themselves are generally safe to eat. However, there was no real way of knowing that at the time other than trial and error observation; this was still the early days of natural products chemistry.

Ekeblad was on the forefront of getting people to use potatoes as food and making them part of agriculture

Ekeblad figured out an efficient method to cook, dry, and mash potatoes into a flour. This, nearly a century after the potato was introduced to Sweden (and after almost 200 years in Europe). They were mostly popular amongst the aristocracy as a novelty and decoration, not often as food, though some people certainly ate potatoes and they were fed to livestock who did not die after ingesting them (or the green part of the plant).

There was some cultural bias against potatoes too. First, they were from cultures that weren’t European. Ironically, today, asking people in the west what country comes to mind if someone says ‘potato’, many would respond ‘Ireland‘. Similarly, with tomatoes, ‘Italy’ might be the answer. Both plants are members of the nightshade family, and both native to South America’s Andes region. The potato became an important staple and may have been key to fueling the industrial revolution. Potatoes in some cases were the only crop that would grow in some regions, which is how Ireland ended up being so dependent on the potato (combined with outright oppressive policies of the ruling English government).

King Frederick of Germany tricked his subjects into adopting the potato (after forcing his soldiers to add it to their diets). The aristocracy were faster to adopt the potato, generally, and Frederick resorted to planting a well guarded royal garden full of potatoes. Though he likely gave instructions to the guards to not look too closely if a peasant broke in and stole a potato plant, which did happen, as he intended. Seeing how much the king valued his potatoes raised their profile for his subjects as desirable.

Ekeblad was on the forefront of getting people to use potatoes as food and making them part of agriculture. Potatoes in her case went into making vodka and the flour could be used as wig powder as well – eventually that translated into potatoes as a common food. Having the potato to ferment into alcohol meant grains weren’t diverted for that purpose and more could be eaten as food thus reducing famine. Potatoes themselves joined the diet eventually and weren’t just used for alcohol. So Ekeblad increased alcohol consumption and reduced hunger in 18th century Sweden.

References and More About Potatoes

 

Flower Hunters, Mary and John Gribbin: Oxford University Press, 2008. p53: “Linnaeus feared potatoes were poisonous, as they were related to nightshade; though he saw his servants/lower classes/cows consuming them without ill effect; he was against adopting them despite doing other work to improve agriculture in Sweden.”, via Google Books search.

List of Swedish Inventions: http://www.sccc.ca/site/panel5/SwedishInnovations.html

The Impact of The Potato: http://www.history-magazine.com/potato.html

How The Potato Changed The World. Accessed July, 2017: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-potato-changed-the-world-108470605/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eva_Ekeblad

https://www.google.com/#q=Eva+Ekeblad&oi=ddle&hl=en

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/eva-ekblad-potato-flour-alcohol-potatoes-google-doodle-swedish-scientist-starch-a7832911.html

Ed You Tuber Potato Series:

 

 


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